Only Yesterday

In Only Yesterday when 27 year old Taeko takes a vacation from her office job in Tokyo, childhood memories flood in, making the young woman take stock of her life. Taeko loves the countryside and jumps into working in the fields with her grandmother. This passion mystifies her sisters.

In the country, Taeko is haunted by memories from her 5th grade self. She looks back at the gossiping classmates, her outsider status at home and how she missed out on a chance to act because her father disproved of theatrics. She was and still is a dreamer, who was at times, kind, selfish, a follower, a betrayer and a doormat. In essence, Taeko lived through the slings and arrows of tween life.

Romance almost buds when Taeko meets Toshio, a young farmer who’s left the city to start an organic farm, before most people had heard of them. Toshio and Taeko have a bond and become fast friends. They both love rural life, but when urged to consider Toshio in terms of romance, Taeko can’t handle it.

This animated film has lush, detailed illustrations of scenery. Seeing the homes, the trains, forest and details like the burners for mosquito repellant, the tea kettle or kerosene heaters, makes me remember my time in Japan. I thought the artists drew the children better than the older characters, but that is a mild criticism.

Also, I wish they had kept this film in Japanese and had subtitles or offered a choice for dubbing. That way, I could have escaped into the movie further still. With one character having a British accent and the others North American accents, I felt it was disjointed. I wasn’t clear on why Toshio had a British accent. It might have made more sense if one or more characters had rather rural sounding accents, but they didn’t.

All in all, Only Yesterday is a beautiful film that’s best considered as a contemplation of the past. The ending isn’t very satisfying, but I think viewers should consider this a depiction of a life, rather than a story with a definite end.

Red Beard

 

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Red Beard performs surgery as Yasumot o looks on

I had imagined the premise of Kurosawa’s Red Beard (1965) incorrectly for years. I assumed it was some samurai film with lots of sword fights so I never bothered with it. Then when I listened to the commentary on The Lower Depths, I realized that it was a drama. I had to right this wrong so I picked up the DVD at the library.

Set in 19th century Japan, Red Beard isn’t just about the curmudgeon older doctor so nicknamed, it’s equally about young Dr. Yasumoto, who has just finished medical school and arrives Red Beard’s clinic. Yasumoto is not happy about working in a clinic that serves the poorest of the poor. He had his heart set on treating high status samurai. Surely, this is a mistake the arrogant, obstinate  young doctor believes.

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Yasumoto (Kayama) and Red Beard (Mifune) with director A. Kurosawa

Yasumoto refuses to put on the clinic uniform or to abide by any of the clinic rules. He’s horrified by the outward appearance of the poor. He almost gets killed when he flouts a rule about avoiding the hut in the back where a deranged, wealthy woman is housed. All the while Red Beard is gruff, wise and patient. He sees so much more than Yasumoto can.

I loved Red Beard’s gruff ways. He was gentle with the patients who needed it, but tough with those who were foolish. He was wise in dealing with Yasumoto, allowing the young doctor to figure life out on his own and smiling when he finally donned his uniform and took on treating the poor of his own accord.

The plot twists and turns. Sometimes Red Beard is the focus, often Yasumoto, or a poor girl who’s rescued from a brothel. So many characters are given the spotlight and they all deserve it. The film has an emotional depth on par with The Human Condition, and one that few films bother to attempt. Kurosawa doesn’t beat you over the head with a message, but he does make you muse on how you should be kinder or more compassionate, how you should stretch beyond your comfort zone. It’s a film I could watch again and again. I’m so glad my misconception was dispelled. Red Beard is a treasure.

 

Human Condition, II

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Tatsuya Nakadai as Kaji

Part two of Kobayashi’s trilogy Human Condition maintains the excellence of the first film. Here the hero Kaji is a private in the military. It seems no one on the face of the earth faces more degradation than a WWII Japanese private. Kaji’s particularly targeted because he’s suspect of being a “Red” since he tried to get humane treatment for the Chinese P.O.W.’s stationed at the mine he managed.

The “vets” or soldiers with more experience are merciless in their brutality against the newer recruits. In fact, the sensitive Obara, who’s physically weak and plagued by domestic problems, is beaten and humiliated in a way I’ve never witnessed. While Kaji tries to help, that makes matters worse for Obara who commits suicide rather early on in this three hour film.

Although Kaji is strong and performs his duties without failure, because of his principles, he’s berated and targeted. In no uncertain terms, the film indicts the Japanese military, where a few good men are outnumbered by corrupt brutes. Even when he was in the hospital, he was beaten. The head nurse thought nothing of striking patients!

As in Human Condition, part 1, Tatsuya Nakadai, who plays Kaji, is stellar. I just learned that he was a shop clerk and Koyabashi, the director of Human Condition, discovered him and put him in a film.

Street Without End

street woDirected by Mikio Naruse, Street Without End centers on Sugiko, a beautiful young waitress. All the customers are smitten with her and when she walks down the street a talent agent stops her to get her into the movies. Her best friend and roommate is a little put off, but when Sugiko gives up the idea of a film career, the friend gets hired by the studio.

One day, Sugiko gets hit by a car. The wealthy driver takes her to the hospital and gets smitten. She wasn’t hurt badly and the rich man soon starts courting her. His mother and sister disprove but soon the two are married.

After the wedding, Sugiko is sneered at and mocked by her mother-in-law and sister who connives to give Sugiko a hard time. Her husband defends her in a weak way but when the gets a job he starts going out drinking late and so he’s not at home to protect her from the mean mother-in-law and sister.

The silent film can be touching and it does show pre-WWII Japan, but compared to most people, who lack Sugiko’s luck, her life isn’t all that rough. So it was hard to get into this film, though I can appreciate some moments. Later Naruse made a mark for films about women who had major struggles.

So it’s not a must see.

The Black River

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Mask Kobayashi paints a bleak picture of Tokyo during the 1950s in The Black River. Set in a neighborhood beside a U.S. Army base, Kobayashi shows how Japan’s become corrupt. When Nishida, an upright student/bookseller, moves into a decrepit apartment building that’s more of a shanty than a building, we meet a motley crew consisting of parasites, prostitutes and a couple good guys who don’t stand a chance of fighting city hall given that most of their neighbors would sell out their own mother given the chance.

Soon both Nishida and Killer Joe, a Japanese low level gangster, fall for Shizuko, a lovely, innocent young woman. Joe shows his colors early on by ordering his hoodlum pals to attack Shizuko. It seems they’re going to rape her, but Joe happens by and fights them off. He professes his love and while Shizuko is briefly wooed, Joe then forces himself on her and she’s reviled. The next day Shizuko visits Joe to tell him she was going to report him to the police, but decided she’d be willing to marry him to salvage her reputation. What a sacrifice! It’s hard to believe that a woman would even have to consider such an option, but in some times and places that’s how people thought.

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Meanwhile Joe’s plotting with the greedy landlady to evict the residents of the shanty. Both will make out like bandits if they can get the not-so-beautiful losers out of the place.

The film then criticizes the greed, pettiness and lack of morality in society without blaming the problems on the American Army.The Black River shows how the characters contribute to their own troubles. Certainly, Shizuko was a victim in many ways, but she winds up but her choices also lead to an end where I saw no happily ever after for her.

Dragnet Girl by Ozu

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Dragnet Girl: Joji (l) and Tokiko (r)

Director Ozu’s Dragnet Girl is an absorbing silent film about Tokiko,a gangster moll, who becomes jealous when Joji, her boyfriend, gets a case of the wandering eye. Tokiko looks as sweet as can be, but actually she’s quite a coquette. She works at a company by day and the boss’s son is smitten with her plying her with expensive gifts that she’s happy to take.

Her night’s are spent with Joji, the head of a small crime outfit that seems to fix boxing matches. Tokiko is Joji’s main squeeze. Selfish and extravagant, she’s quite brazen and disloyal as she’ll wear her boss’s gifts in front of Joji.

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Kazuko

When a high school boy, impressed with Joji’s flash and power, tries to join his gang, the boy’s sister, Kazuko, who’s simple and innocent, begs Joji to get her brother back on the straight and narrow. Joji’s instantly smitten with Kazuko. He starts hanging around her music shop and starts appreciating classical music and all that Kazuko, who pays him no mind, appreciates.

At first Tokiko dismisses her rival, but when she sees that Joji is changing for real she gets nervous. She goes as far as plotting to shoot Kazuko, but then she comes to appreciate Kazuko’s magnetic innocence. Tokiko is not to be trusted after telling Joji she wants to change and become more like her rival. She’s been branded as a delinquent and that label’s impossible to remove.

The film has the style of a noir classic and takes some interesting turns as Tokiko refuses to marry her boss and plots to rob him with Joji. It’s a beautiful simple film that didn’t need talking.