Yu Aoi brings old-world charm to Tokyo Family

This time I’m writing about a film that was nominated for, but didn’t win the Best Film award of the Japanese Academy – Yoji Yamada’s Tokyo Family (Tokyo kazoku), a contemporized but faithful remake of the Yasujiro Ozu classic, Tokyo Story (1953). The film regularly features on critics and audience lists of ‘best Japanese movies of all time’, so you can imagine what a daunting task it is to remake such a film. The original tells the story of an aged couple who come to visit their grown up children in Tokyo but discover that the children are caught up in their own fast-paced city lives and after a couple of days, actually find their presence a botheration. If this was a relevant topic in the late 50s, you can imagine how much more relevant it is today.

Of course, I am a big fan of Yamada’s Samurai trilogy and I plan one day to watch at least one or two of his long-running ‘Tora-san’ movies (48 movies from 1969 to 1995). But I confess, after reading the less than flattering reviews of Tokyo Family (all comparing it unfavorably to the original classic film, Tokyo Story), I wondered why I was bothering to watch it at all. After the first 15 minutes, I thought that I should just stop watching and go do something else; I couldn’t get used to the time-displacement of the story, nor the new faces in familiar roles. I then fast-forwarded the film at x1.5 for the next half hour or so.

By this time, I got used to the ‘new’ actors occupying the spaces of my beloved characters; particularly Isao Hashizume in the role of the father (played by the legendary Chishu Ryu in the original) and Tomoko Nakajima as his sharp-tongued daughter who runs a hair-dressing parlor (played perfectly in 1953 by stage and film actress Haruko Sugimura in one of her signature roles). So I switched the video back to regular speed, stopped comparing and started enjoying.

Half-way through the 2 ½ hour film, we come to the point where the key supporting character Noriko enters the story. In the original movie, she was played by Setsuko Hara. Her role in the 1953 film was considered a continuation of the father-daughter pairings that she and Chishu Ryu had become famous for in two earlier films by Ozu (Late Spring and Early Summer).

In this version, Noriko is the girlfriend of the youngest son; in the original, she was the widow of the son killed in the war, who still maintains a close relationship with the family and actually shows greater filial piety than the couple’s own children. Noriko in 2013 is played by Yu Aoi, who won Best Supporting Actress for Hula Girls in 2007. She was nominated again for this portrayal of the sweet-natured ‘girl-next-door’ who wins over the affections of the aged parents, particularly the hard-to-please father. And I have to say, she really fills those shoes very well with an entirely believable and earnest performance; this made all the difference for me in the end.

The last act of the movie is as emotional as the original. The entire family is seen together under tragic circumstances and the low-key sentimental melodrama that Japanese cinema so excels in (especially funeral and wake scenes) is in full flow. The parting scene between the father and the girl who is to become his daughter-in-law is particularly intense and touching.

So, ultimately, I will give a thumbs-up to the remake and of course, as most reviewers have recommended, I will set aside time to watch the original classic once again.


Best Film winners at the Japanese Academy: The Twilight Samurai

The 2003 Tom Cruise period action-drama The Last Samurai is the film that introduced me to contemporary Japanese actors Ken Watanabe and Hiroyuki Sanada; I believe this was the first English language film that either had acted in. Since then, both have appeared in a number of Hollywood productions, but the real treat is to watch them in Japanese movies, where they have the opportunity to play a wider range of characters.

Hiroyuki Sanada won his only Japanese Best Actor awards so far (he has been nominated 4 other times) for The Twilight Samurai (Tasogare Seibei) released in 2002. This is the first of veteran director Yoji Yamada’s ‘Samurai Trilogy’ (released in 2-year gaps by The Hidden Blade and Love and Honor). Many of the famous samurai films of the 1950s and 60s showcase the brave and heroic side of a samurai’s life; but even in those films, one could read the subtext of their hand-to-mouth existence and the susceptibility of their lives to the whims and fancies of feudal lords. Yamada’s trilogy focuses on this latter, less glamorous aspect of samurai life and amplifies it to tell 3 different stories where honor and self-respect stand firm in the face of overwhelming social and financial odds.

In The Twilight Samurai, Sanada plays Seibei, an impoverished widower who is a Samurai in name only, but actually spends his days doing accounts as a junior member of his warlord’s bureaucracy. He acquires the nickname ‘twilight’ because he rushes off at sunset every day to get home and take care of his 2 kids and elderly mother (while his colleagues go off to eat, drink and make merry). He even supplements his meagre income building cricket cages to sell. He is so poor that he is unable to wash or clothe himself properly and for this too, he is berated by his superiors.

At some point, his childhood friend’s sister Tomoe returns to town following her divorce from an abusive husband. Leading on from an incident involving her ex-husband, Seibei and Tomoe slowly develop feelings for each other, but Seibei declines an opportunity to marry her, given his own poverty and inferior social status. Eventually, Seibei is commanded by his feudal lord to kill a renegade samurai. Seibei departs on his mission, not expecting to return alive. His situation is so pathetic that he does not even have a retainer to prepare him for the duel; Tomoe comes home to assist him and he confesses to her that he should have married her when he had the chance, but now it is too late as she has accepted another’s proposal. The renegade samurai is a wretched creature with no hope of escape or redemption and herein lies the true tragedy of this story. The tense duel in close quarters is a fight to the death and ends in favor of our hero. He returns home to his family, exhausted and wounded, and is amazed to find Tomoe still there. Our joy in their reunion is immediately doused by the bittersweet coda (with voice-over narration by Seibei’s grown up daughter) which tells us that they married but he died 3 years later in a civil war; an appropriate end for such a down-on-his-luck character, I suppose.

I liked Yoji Yamada’s straightforward, linear storytelling approach. There are no tricks of time or perception to distract you from the story. Similarly, the camera work is very functional, with no crazy angles, rapid zooms or fast tracking shots; this is exemplified during a duel between Seibei and Tomoe’s ex-husband, which is shot in mid-range at tatami-level, with minimal camera movement, allowing us to focus all our attention on Seibei’s extraordinary skill, ending with a superb leaping, spinning blow; I must have played back this scene half a dozen times.

I also realized how much effort must have gone into a simple scene which shows Seibei speaking to someone while busily splitting wooden strips with his knife (to build the cricket cages with); this is a task that requires some skill, yet the actor Sanada carries it off with ease, just as we would expect of someone who does this task every day. This must have required great degree of practice from Sanada and perhaps multiple takes to make it appear so natural.

The music is minimalist, in keeping with the entire philosophy of keeping this movie spare and simple. Many scenes have no music at all, or often times just a simple note on a flute or the beat of a drum.

This film won an incredible 12 Japanese Academy Awards, sweeping all the major categories – Film, Director, Actor, Actress, Supporting Actor, Screenplay, Cinematography, Lighting, Editing, Art Direction, Music Score and Sound; in other words, every award except Best Supporting Actress. An extraordinary achievement, made all the more commendable by the fact that Yamada followed this up with the equally superb The Hidden Blade (nominated for all categories, but won only Art Direction) and Love and Honor (nominated for all categories, and won Supporting Actor, Cinematography and Lighting) over the next 4 years.

Best Film winners at the Japanese Academy: Confessions

When I started watching Confessions (Kokuhaku), I had no idea what to expect, not having bothered to read any reviews or blurbs. I had picked the movie just because it had won the 2011 Best Film award of the Japanese Academy. By the end of the film, I was trying to understand what it was about this film that appealed to the viewing public (it was a modest box office success) and the Academy voters. Did they see this as a biting social satire with an underlying message about the need to raise kids better? Or perhaps Japanese adults also shared the director’s view that their youth are disaffected, disconnected, angst-ridden and selfish and therefore this revenge tale gave them some sort of vicarious satisfaction? Surely, if seen as a straight-up psychological thriller then it should not qualify for so high an honor as the best Japanese film of 2010; not when it was up against movies like About Her Brother (directed by the legendary Yoji Yamada), Takashi Miike’s samurai spectacular 13 Assassins and Villain (by Hula Girls director Sang-il Lee). Some bloggers even felt that the box office success was due merely to the loyal fan base of singer-actress Takako Matsu turning up at the theatres.

The opening segment features a long monologue by Middle School class teacher Ms. Moriguchi (Takako Matsu) intercut with some flashback scenes. The teacher informs her unruly students that she is handing in her resignation and they will have a new teacher when they return from spring break. She then shocks them by saying that the recent accidental death of her young daughter (she was found in the school swimming pool) was actually cold-blooded murder by 2 of her students. She then names the students (one has openly confessed to her already while the other has been protected by his mother) and expresses her frustration that as minors, these 2 boys will be protected from severe punishment by Juvenile Law. She therefore details out her own elaborate revenge plan to the horror/ fascination of the assembled students.

The story then continues past the spring break through the new term as we see the lives of the 2 boys start to unravel. Other significant players in the drama are the class teacher, the parent of one of the boys and a girl in the class who is attracted to the other boy. As a viewer, it’s easy to hate the kids as none of them show any redeeming qualities whatsoever. None of the adults are likeable either, all being portrayed as either stupid, self-centered or in constant denial. Takako Matsu plays the class teacher as someone leeched of all feeling/ emotion due to the death of her daughter, living now for the sole purpose of exacting revenge through a cunning cat-and-mouse play. The violence and the irredeemable nature of the students recalls the cult classic Japanese drama-thriller Battle Royale. On the other hand, the glazed/ disconnected looks of the school kids and their lack of any emotional depth recalls the appearance and demeanor of the children in both 1960’s Village of the Damned and Michael Haneke’s award-winning The White Ribbon from 2009.

The story is told in a semi-impressionist style, so don’t look for too much logic or detail (for example, why haven’t the other students told their parents about all this, why is there no intervention from school authorities, etc.).

The movie’s 55-year-old director Tetsuya Nakashima is considered to be one of the important contemporary directors in Japan today, making a series of films depicting troubled relationships in the modern world. His latest effort, The World of Kanako has also created a lot of controversy for its relentless physical and psychological violence.

Confessions is one of those films where I really don’t know what to think at the end of it, except to be afraid that the urban First World school kids depicted in the movie are closer to reality than fiction.

Best Film winners at the Japanese Academy: Hula Girls

In the 1960s, as Japan’s economy shifted from being coal-powered to oil-powered, coal mines came under increasing financial pressure. In the city of Iwaki, the Joban coalfield was one such enterprise whose owners realized their time was running out. Determined to extend the life of the mine and to protect the employment of the town’s residents by any means possible, the management came up with the idea of opening a resort, taking advantage of the numerous hot springs in the area; the same spring water which used to seep into the mines and had ironically been a hazard and nuisance to the miners all these years! They selected a Hawaiian theme for the resort and in spite of the initial resistance of the miners, trained the young girls of the town to dance the Hawaiian hula. The resort went on to become one of the most popular in the country, famous as much for its dance troupe as for its spring water and at its peak in the early 70s, it hosted 1.5 million visitors a year.

This is the inspiring and extraordinary story which forms the basis for the film Hula Girls (Hura gâru), which won the Best Film Award of the Japanese Academy in 2007. It was also chosen as Japan’s entry to the Foreign Film category of the Oscars that year.

In this big-screen retelling of the story, the mining company recruits a dance instructor from Tokyo named Madoka Hirayama (played by strikingly beautiful actress/ singer Yasuko Matsuyuki), who agrees to come to this place in the boondocks because she is trying to escape her past in Tokyo. Nevertheless, she still retains her pride and a haughty demeanour.

She is asked to train a small group of girls, mostly daughters of the resident miners. In particular, the story focuses on a trio of girls Sanae, Kimiko and Sayuri, who defy local and parental opposition to volunteer for the dance classes. The plot goes through the predictable roller-coaster ride that one sees in these feel-good movies involving group effort in the face of adversity. The young girls overcome their own fears and the doubts of their instructor, plus other minor plot hiccups to triumph in a grand finale. The instructor battles her own internal demons and redeems herself through the success of the girls. The parents are won over by the efforts and self-belief of the girls and are there in the end to celebrate their success. We have seen this play through in films ranging from Bend It Like Beckham to Japanese films like Sumo Do Sumo Don’t and Shall We Dansu?. But it’s precisely because stories like this work (when well executed) that we are drawn to them time and again. I certainly enjoyed this good-natured film with its laughter, tears and comedic melodrama.

The film was directed by Sang-il Lee, a Japanese of Korean descent who was 33 years old at the time he filmed it. Four years later, his crime drama Villain (Akunin) was nominated for multiple awards including Best Film, Director and Screenplay. In 2013, he directed a Japanese remake of Clint Eastwood’s award winning revisionist Western Unforgiven, with Ken Watanabe playing the lead role and getting nominated for Best Actor by the Japanese Academy. Certainly, it’s an impressive body of work in the past 7 years and hopefully more to come.

Best Film winners at the Japanese Academy: Departures

In 2009, the winner of the Best Foreign Film award at the Oscars was Departures (Okuribito), directed by Yojiro Takita.

Takita is a veteran director who made his early living directing a series of ‘pink films’ (the Japanese term for soft porn), before graduating to more serious fare. His breakthrough year was in 1994 when he was nominated as Best Director at the Japanese Academy for two different films which he had released the previous year – Made in Japan and Shinjuku Shark – an amazing achievement. Sadly, I have yet to watch or even find a subtitled copy of either of these films.

His 2004 samurai film, When The Last Sword is Drawn won the Japanese Academy Award for Best Film. He then hit the mother lode with this film Okuribito, released in 2008. It is a back-to-the-roots story in which young cellist, Daigo Kobayashi (played by former J-pop star Masahiro Motoki) quits his job in Tokyo and returns with his wife to his hometown Yamagata. He has decided to honor his mother’s last wishes and live in the house that she left to him following her death 2 years earlier. He answers an ad in the paper, mistakenly believing it to be for a travel agency assistant (the ad says “assisting departures”) only to find himself employed as an assistant at a funeral parlor – specifically, to clean, prepare and dress the recently deceased for the viewing at the wake.

What follows is an incredible story of self-discovery; the owner of the funeral service (Japanese acting veteran Tsutomu Yamazaki) plays the classical role of the ‘wise old man’ who helps the young protagonist find his way. It is not an easy journey; his wife as well as other townsfolk (including some of his deceased mother’s friends) are appalled at his new profession. He perseveres, initially out of a sense of duty to the funeral parlor owner and eventually out of a sense of fulfillment that he is bringing closure to all these bereaved families. He also must come to terms with his feelings towards his father who left the family when he was only 6 years old. There are some truly fascinating scenes showing Kobayashi at work reverentially preparing the dead, for which actor Motoki spent several hours of dedicated study. The movie is funny, bittersweet and at times, unabashedly sentimental. The music by Joe Hisaishi (the man who has scored the soundtracks for many Miyazaki films) pulls at the heartstrings. The main theme ‘Memory’ is an instant classic and I had written briefly about it in an earlier series of posts about my favourite soundtracks.

As much as I love Kurosawa’s samurai films, I would say that if there is one Japanese film you would watch in your life, it should be Okuribito.

Best Film winners at the Japanese Academy: Spirited Away

Given how many Japanese movies I have watched (103, to be precise, as of 18th Oct 2014), I haven’t really written too many posts about them. So, I’ve decided every now and then to share some thoughts about the most memorable ones. Since several of my favourite Japanese movies have won the Best Film Award of the Japanese Academy, that’s a convenient theme under which I can cluster my future series of posts. It could just as easily have been ‘Favourite Anime films’ or ‘My top samurai films’…

Today, I’ll write about Hayao Miyazaki’s Spirited Away (Sen to Chihiro no kamikakushi).

In 1997, when James Cameron’s Titanic was barreling around the world creating a global phenomenon, I read that it had become the highest grossing film in Japan by overtaking a Japanese animation film called Princess Mononoke which had been released a few months earlier. This was my first introduction to the name Hayao Miyazaki. Living in Chennai, India at that time, I couldn’t get my hands on a copy of the movie, but I remembered the article about Japan’s living legend of animation. This was in the days before regular access to the internet, so it’s not like I could just go online and read up about him.

Soon after, I watched my first ever Japanese film (it was either Kurosawa’s Yojimbo or Rashomon) and the love affair began. Miyazaki’s name came up again when his next film Spirited Away won the Oscar for Best Animated Film in early 2003. It had already won Best Picture in Japan a year earlier. By then, I had moved to Bangalore and my local DVD library on Church Street (named Habitat) soon got a copy.

Spirited Away was a revelation for me, brought up as I was on Disney’s version of animated storytelling. This is the story of a 10-year-old girl traveling with her parents to their new home. They take a wrong turn and soon end up in a magical world, filled with spirits, witches and other strange creatures. Her parents are turned into pigs and it’s up to little Chihiro to use her courage and her wits to save them. I was initially repulsed by the grotesque characters in the film, especially the ugly witch Yubaba, but was eventually drawn into the fascinating world and its myriad denizens – the young boy Haku who turns into a white dragon, the frightening No-Face and Kamaji, the strange ‘spider-man’ who runs the boiler room in the bath-house.

Watching it was an incredible, magical, scary experience. I vicariously lived through Chihiro’s fear so intensely that I still feel a sense of apprehension when I think about watching the film again! Since then, I have watched all the Studio Ghibli films, and to be honest I much prefer Miyazaki’s lighter fare like My Neighbor Totoro and Kiki’s Delivery Service and even Howl’s Moving Castle, which can be considered as dark as Spirited Away.

We watched his bittersweet farewell film The Wind Rises earlier this year and also visited the Ghibli museum in Japan in April. How fortunate I am to have seen the works of this great man and what a great injustice that his films have not been seen by more people around the world.

The Blind Swordsman: Zatoichi

Zatoichi is the lead character from one of Japan’s most beloved movie series, consisting of 26 films which ran from 1962 to 1989. The films tell the story of a blind masseur who earns his living wandering from village to village. But the twist is that he is also an expert swordsman, his sense of hearing in particular having become hyper-acute over the years to compensate for his lack of sight. In addition, he is also a compulsive gambler, making much more money from playing the dice than he does from being a masseuse, his hearing allowing him to figure out how the dice fall!

Last week I watched one of the Zatoichi films, interestingly not one from the ‘official series’, but a remake released in 2003, directed by the multi-talented Japanese cultural icon Takesh Kitano (a.k.a. Beat Takeshi).

Titled Zatoichi, it is an extraordinary film and I strongly recommend it to anyone interested in 2 hours of entertainment involving a mix of drama, humour and action.

The most unexpected feature of the film is the incorporation of Japanese tap-dance group The Stripes into various sequences in the film. These are incidental or background sequences lasting no more than a minute, which have no bearing on the plot but are pretty entertaining. The first of sequences can be found here; in the first few seconds, I wasn’t sure if it was my imagination or if there really was some pattern to the sounds of the 4 farmers digging the field. Then as the pattern settled in, of course it became clear that it was all orchestrated. There is a similar scene with the same 4 farmers dancing in the rain, then one at the end with 4 masons building a house. The film ends with a full-on performance by the entire troupe, masquerading as some sort of temple festival dance…as incongruous as the song-and-dance sequences we see in Indian films, but utterly charming and enjoyable.

Coming back to this remake, it has a ‘by-the-numbers plot’, similar in many ways to the classic samurai films like Yojimbo, which itself was an homage to the classic Western – itinerant wanderer comes into town, is taken in by innocent downtrodden resident, takes on the local bad guys and wipes them out, then walks off into the sunset, leaving behind eternally grateful beneficiary.

But although the story is typical, the charm lies in the execution; I loved the way the different characters were quickly introduced at the beginning, each with his/her backstory told in quick-flashback style. The fight sequences feature a fair bit of blood (in contrast to traditional samurai films which almost never show any), but it is so obviously CGI that the violence seems cartoonish and ‘acceptable’. The supporting cast are all very good, featuring some big names from the industry – ‘Japanese Johnny Depp’ Tadanobu Asano, respected character actress Michiyo Okusu and comedian ‘Guadalcanal’ Taka. But most of all, it is Takeshi Kitano himself, playing Zatoichi who is magnetic and eerily disturbing in this role.

After I finished this film, I decided to watch one of the originals; I picked Zatoichi vs. Yojimbo, which had the blind swordsman pitted against the iconic Yojimbo character from the Kurosawa films and actually played by Toshiro Mifune himself. But I was quite disappointed to see the original Zatoichi, having now accepted Takeshi Kitano’s version as my template. Compared to the superhuman Kitano version, the original Zatoichi played by the beloved Shintaro Katsu came across as some sort of bumbling, chubby-cheeked village idiot.

Recently, I came across this descriptive and revealing interview, in which Takeshi Kitano explains how he came to take on this project and what sort of liberties he took with this remake. Having read this, I have a better appreciation for why the remake is so different from the original. I am going to try and watch a couple of the original films, but I suspect that Kitano’s version will remain my favourite. What a pity I had to watch the remake first…26 films from the original series ruined forever!