The Only Son (1936)

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Tragedy in life starts with the bondage of parents and children.

The film opens with a single extended scene with the title card reading: Shinshu, Central Japan 1923. Ozu guides us in with his pillow shots framing the story’s sequences with images of his locales which neither serve the narrative nor reveal anything about our characters at hand. But he more than many directors is well aware of his environment and basking in its very contours.

The opening premise has to do with a young middle school-aged boy and his mother. The problem is whether or not he will go onto high school. You see, his father is dead and his mother must eke by a living. They don’t have much money. School costs money.

There are two stories going around. The one he told his mother saying he would not continue his schooling and then the one he told his teacher. His mother only finds out when the man comes by to acknowledge how happy he is for the boy.

Though distraught at first, from that day forward the mother vows to pay for her son to have schooling, first high school and then college. Likewise, he vows dutifully to become a great man so her maternal sacrifice is not in vain.

Flashforward to the present and the now elderly mother decides to pay a visit to her son in the big city of Tokyo. He’s grown now and has a job. But it turns out that things are not as she might have hoped.

First off, he has a couple of surprises for her. He got married and already has a baby son. Also, their home is fairly run-down and humble because his salary as a night school teacher is meager at best. So much for being a great man. It turns out such aspirations are difficult, especially in a metropolis like Tokyo. Look no further than his old teacher who has turned to running a butcher shop just to provide for his family.

However, despite these circumstances, the son throws out all the stops to make a lavish showing of hospitality for his mother’s benefit. After all, he can’t possibly let on how things are actually going. Because that would break her heart. He would have failed her.

So he buys extra chicken, offers small trinkets, and they attend the picture show. Things he probably never would have done if she were not present. Slowly he’s sinking under the surface, borrowing money from everyone who might oblige.

But of course, the truth always finds its way out. She worked so hard to get him to college and the hope of his successes kept her going. The revelation of his current situation pains her heart and she’s forthright in telling him precisely that. She is utterly ashamed as he explains how difficult it is to become a big man in Tokyo. Hard work does not always cut it.

This could be the end of their relationship right there and yet there is another moment. After a horrible accident, he gives all the money they have left to help a single mother pay for her son’s medical bills. It’s a meaningful gesture and right before she leaves, the mother tells her son that she’s proud of his integrity.

All he can think about is how unsatisfied she must be and how much he didn’t want her to come to begin with. His wife concurs he’s lucky to have such a good mother, because by the standards of Japan, she made her child her all so that he might succeed.

Meanwhile, the mother regales her solitary friend back home about her son who has become a great man and his lovely wife and how she can die now without any regrets. All the while we know the full truth but she must save face and so she makes up the most satisfying story she can. Hidden away from view her head is downcast in grief and shame.

What’s striking to the very last frame of The Only Son is the conflicting feelings it provides. It constantly flits back and forth between this false sense of security and contentment to moments of deepest regret.

It never quite allows you to rest on a single one of these emotions but instead requires you to cope with them in equal measures as the scenes are layered one on top of another. First, the mother is happy, then the son is anxious, then the mother is ashamed, then proud. Her son is regretful and finally spurred on to make another go of being a great man. So there’s this lingering sweetness, this not uncertain hope, and yet his mother is in the backroom head bowed, saddened by where she left her boy.

There is no easy answer. There is no definite category. There’s no way to siphon off this person’s emotions from that person’s because they all remain interconnected. That’s what allows this film to make sense and have such an emotional impact as it quietly whiplashes us back and forth between mother and son. We feel for both of them even if their hopes and aspirations seem somewhat misplaced. It’s a film that pains the heart of anyone who hates to see lives in utter distress.

I must confess that I racked my brain for the reason Ozu might spend so much time cutting to shots of the hanging laundry — a recurring motif throughout the film. Surely, there’s some intricacy that I am missing or some subtle symbolism. While that is undoubtedly true, I realized even more clearly that Ozu did not require an overt reason for his shot choices.

Just as our eyes stray to observe the world around us so his camera turns its lens in such a way. It is attracted to faces, rooms, and maybe even the mundane qualities of hanging shirts as the wind softly swirls past. There need not be more than this.

Likewise, I kept on staring at the image of the glamorous movie star up on the wall of their humble home. I was trying to decide if it was Joan Crawford or some German actress I am not aware of. Someone else might be able to distill my ignorance but I realized, again, it did not matter as long as I enjoyed the overall experience.

Ozu can be cast much in the way of the famed woodblock printer Katsushika Hokusai most famous for his “36 views of Mount Fuji.” Likewise, the Japanese director took similar forms and topics and unearthed the intricacies of temperament and interrelations which he subsequently revisited again and again.

If you notice, he has simply reversed his normal dynamic of father with daughter and it has become mother and son. Relatively similar origins and yet the outcomes are no less enlightening. So it’s not necessarily about the novel. There can be just as much relish in taking something that we are so used to, like parent-children relations, and recasting them in such a way that we recognize the situations with greater lucidity. Therein lies a space for growth and understanding.

Surely Ozu takes some getting used to. However, eventually his style will age on you and you will come to find the same fascinations he does until your tastes meld and it becomes second nature to see the empathy and beauty in his subject matter just as he seems to. Pretty soon it feels as if you are looking alongside him. If you let him, it can become a thoroughly symbiotic relationship between filmmaker and audience.

4.5/5 Stars

Arigato-san (1936)

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The translated English title of Mr. Thank You somehow comes off insincere as if it’s making fun but there’s nothing of this kind of sentiment in this picture from director Hiroshi Shumizu. It proves to be a cordial exploration of human nature and human kindness played out in the most organic fashion possible. In turn, it’s blessed by extensive on location shooting as well as a wide-ranging cast of players.

What it promises is a charming road film like few I’ve ever seen; self-contained and yet freely spilling out over the roads with meandering ease guided by our eponymous hero. The driver of the bus traversing the road from the rural area of Iku to the big city in Tokyo is known to everyone as “Arigato-san” because when you hear a polite ‘Honk’ followed by an “Arigato,” he’s more than made his presence known.

People appreciate his continuous gratitude and also the courteous favors he does for them along his route. It might be picking up pop records for girls in the hills so they can have quality entertainment. Or for someone else promising to place water and flowers at a deceased father’s grave. He obliges graciously and constantly makes necessary pit stops to accommodate everyone.

The rhythm becomes second nature to us as an audience as well and we gladly follow any diversion the story takes. By the end, we’re so used to the film’s continual visual motif of point-of-view shots followed by an “Arigato” and a rear view of the pedestrians making way and waving our travelers on.

Peppy scoring right out of a Hollywood silent reel comedy does wonders to develop a certain mood on the road. In one respect it matches the jovial demeanor of our protagonist but at the same time, there are slight nuances of more solemn issues merely touched upon. Because it’s a bus that brings together quite the gathering of folks from all walks of life.

If our bus driver is a lovely character full of cheerfulness then his passengers are certainly just as colorful. He can be seen almost like a benevolent symbol of modernity and in some respects, his cohort is one too. She takes the seat right behind him and we gather at first that it’s simply to flirt. But as the story unfolds and we see more interactions those initial preconceptions give way to a more complex reading. She reflects a different sort of progressiveness. A woman who speaks her mind, drinks with the boys, and calls others out for their improprieties. You get the innate sense that she is worldly wise but generally kind-hearted.

The rest of the core group includes an impoverished mother and her daughter who is going to Tokyo for the sake of her family; it’s further implied that she will be forced to take on the ignominious life of a prostitute. Next, is a phony businessman with a handlebar mustache and a penchant for ogling pretty girls. The passengers are rounded out by earthy but nevertheless amiable folks and momentary travelers attending weddings and wakes. Each has a unique destination. Arigato-san transports them all.

For a director as prolific as he was — Shimizu had over 160 screen credits — it’s astounding that he has very little recognition among audiences now, at home or abroad. Yasujiro Ozu, one of his contemporaries and colleagues in their days at Shochiku Studio is of course revered the world over. Some might actually find Arigato-san more accessible in some respects and it’s definitely deserving of more acknowledgment.

Because what it offers up is not only a genial portrait of Japan and its humanity but also some of the inherent plight of the common man in rural Japan. In fact, the film is so affable that some of its undertones easily slip by. There’s a wide range of depth going from humor to surprisingly delicate commentary.

All the while we come to relish the time spent with each one of these individual passengers and especially Arigato-san. When they exit the bus upon arriving at their appointed destination it means something because in such a short time it does feel like we’ve built some sort of rapport with them. That’s one of the joys of travel felt most readily when you make the concerted effort to get to know those around you.

In this particular instance, the film provides deeper cross-cultural understanding and there is the realization that economic depressions were not centered solely around the U.S. Japan had similar if not worse conditions for its populous. And if anything, it makes you realize how the nationalistic movement in Germany or imperialistic ambitions in Japan took root. It comes from people who are weary from economic and social deprivation. They want something better.

For his part, I deeply admire the character of Arigato-san because his purpose is a noble one planted in humility. It seems like he genuinely cares for his neighbors and he readily goes out of his way to increase their joy. On a large scale, things might well seem hopeless but the micro-level shows that Japan was made up of many considerate people. While that cannot alleviate all the suffering of the impoverished it certainly is a jumping off point to instigate human flourishing.

4/5 Stars

The Burmese Harp (1956)

The_Burmese_Harp_Nikkatsu_1956_poster.jpgPut in juxtaposition with Kon Ichikawa’s later rumination on WWII, The Burmese Harp is a romanticized even simplistic account of the Japanese perspective of the war. However,  this is not to discount the mesmerizing nature of the story that is woven nor the overarching truth that seems to linger over its frames.

If anything, it humanizes the Japanese point of view and, rather remarkably, it does this so soon after the war’s conclusion. They were a nation deeply concerned with honor and the only way to get past such an egregious defeat was to frame it in such a way that empowered them for the future.

Because the men who came out of the war unscathed would be the shoulders on which to build a new democracy. You see that even in Ichikawa’s portrayal of the “enemy,” in this case, the English. There is no obvious ill-will. In fact, you could even consider it surprisingly laudatory. Because The Burmese Harp is not concerned with any types of residual politics or long-harbored injustices.

One could make the case it’s a far more universal and a far more moving portrait of the wartime landscape. The story, adapted from a Japanese children’s tale, plays out rather like a parable.

In the waning days of the Burma campaigns, a Japanese Captain named Inouye (Rentaro Mikuni), with a background in music teaches his group of men chorale arrangements which they sing to maintain their morale while they march and during their idle hours. One of their company, Private Mizushima (Shoji Yasui), quickly picks it up and becomes especially skilled at playing the harp to accompany their songs.

One evening they find their position in a local village surrounded by British soldiers in the night. The tense scene is diffused by music in a mutual connection reminiscent of the Christmas cheer in Joyeux Noel.

They learn that Japan has officially surrendered and so they lay down their arms peaceably. Although fearful and demoralized by months of struggle, they resolve to weather it all together. But one of their members is called upon to try and get some of their comrades to stand down before the British blast them to smithereens.

Mizushima volunteers to be the one to undertake this initial task as a liaison to try and avoid the needless loss of more countrymen. It is not to be. Even as the war is already over, it’s this event that proves to be galvanizing in the private’s new position as a missionary of mercy.  After being rehabilitated by a monk, he takes on their dress and shaves his head compelled to give a decent burial to all his fallen comrades.

Moved by the memorial hymn sung over the dead Japanese soldiers at the British Hospital, he realizes what his final calling must be. It’s easy to wager that the film’s most poignant moments occur in conjunction with song. In many of the best interludes, we hear the voices ringing out amid nature whether it’s the shade of the forest or the cleared terrain of a military encampment you can sense the notes rising up into the heavens with the strains of angelic melodiousness.

The same songs lift the spirits of our characters, comforts their souls,  and gives them the resolve to push onward for the greater good.  It has to do with an unswerving belief that each individual life holds dignity. Despite their many spiritual differences, there’s no doubt that this is a conclusion arrived at by both Buddhism and Christianity. Yes, the ugliness is unavoidable. But just as prevalent are immense reservoirs of beauty.

Mizushima is compelled in the inter most catacombs of his being to rescue the bodies of his brothers-in-arms that their spirits might rest in peace for posterity. It seems like such a small even insignificant act especially in response to such a cataclysmic war. But it’s one man’s calling. It is not for a mere man to know the answers to all the plaguing questions. All we can do is ease the suffering. For him, it is something. For him, it is enough.

What lends urgency to the story is the very fact that Mizushima’s entire company is frantically trying to obtain news of his whereabouts as they are getting ready to be shipped home. One of their most faithful messengers is a kindly old lady who learned some Japanese dialect. She can only give them small morsels but they cling to some hope. First, they think he’s been killed. Then, they think they’ve passed him on a bridge. Finally, they get their closure.

The candor is nearly startling especially put in relief with Ichikawa’s later work Fires on The Plain which paints a starkly different picture (or a very different side of the same picture). Likewise, this movie is aided by a script penned by his wife and close collaborator Natto Wada.

What we are left with are clear resounding strains of pacifism but by no means does it feel belligerent. What is conveyed is the sheer meaninglessness of war. However, it’s done through different avenues than his later work.

The film is bookended by the phrase, “The soil of Burma is red and so are its rocks.” The mind quickly flies to the pints of blood that were spilled across this terrain. It’s a grim reminder and yet The Burmese Harp, despite being a bittersweet tale, does boast hope. In the wake of war, such hopefulness is indispensable. You cannot progress without it.

4/5 Stars

Fires on the Plain (1959)

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The opening images of Fires on the Plain nearly catch you off guard. Not only are we thrown into a dialogue sequence that we have yet to grasp but much like Ozu would have a penchant for doing, director Kon Ichikawa photographs two Japanese soldiers head on so their conversation and reactions face the camera directly. It’s the first of numerous times where the film messes around with visual convention. But that’s not the half of it.

Fires on the Plain proves to be a repeatedly idiosyncratic war film while subsequently becoming one of the most appalling. As an audience, we are privy to one Japanese soldier’s listless pilgrimage across the bleak and generally decimated terrain. There’s no goal in sight. No reason even to stay alive. He is stricken with tuberculosis but the hospital, drowning in casualties already, won’t take him because he’s not fatal enough.

His commanding officer, who berated him in the opening minutes for returning to his starving unit, told him to try the hospital again or else use his grenade to kill himself and uphold his duty.

Ichikawa frames his pointless journey with unconventional camera setups that are considerably jarring if not completely detached. Private Tamura (Eiji Funakoshi) lumbers up each hill mechanically. Hacks his way through the underbrush. There’s little meaning to his movements. Any incoming threat seems inconsequential in spite of hikes in dramatic scoring. Still, he wanders through ghost towns and fresh graveyards. Rather haphazardly skewers a stray mutt with his bayonet. Guns down a local inside a hut as part of his constant search for food. Another villager gets away in a boat.

By this point, Tamura hardly cares anymore and proceeds to drop his useless firearm into a river; there are no bullets left. When he’s not alone he joins the most beleaguered band of squatters as they blindly wander toward their evacuation point together but no less pitiful.

It’s not a film to shie away from the stomach-churning, grotesque, forlorn, utterly hopeless realities of what war really is. Fields strewn with dead bodies. Heaps of skeletal remains. Hospitals with abhorrent conditions. Wild tales of men eating human flesh just to stay alive in New Guinea. Wading through mud. Playing dead with incoming enemy fighters. There’s little respite from this onslaught.

It becomes so absurdly hopeless it’s almost funny. What else is there to resort to? In the rain, trampling through the underbrush, first, one soldier sees a pair of discarded boots and switches his worn pair with these. This swapping continues with another man. The first man’s trash is his treasure. By the time our protagonist gets there, the boots left over are completely worn through but his boots have no soles either so he just tosses them on the ground and resigns himself to walking barefoot.

This is insanity. It’s cruddy. Absolutely dreadful imagery again and again and again. There’s a certain point where it simply becomes an act of survival — nearly monotonous in its never-ending, never ceasing plodding toward an ultimatum. We must begin to ask questions. Why do we do this to ourselves? Why must we go through this suffering and inflict pain and injury on our fellow man? We even resort to infighting just to survive.

If you came in with any idealized visions of warfare still intact, Ichikawa’s intent is to rip those preconceptions away limb from limb. There is no good in war. Only vile, putrid, horrible, unthinkable things that extinguish life and crush the human spirit.

Such moments prove to make Fires on the Plain a perfect counterpoint to Hollywood’s Bridge on the River Kwai (1957) going far beyond their choices in palette. Because Ichikawa’s film takes it’s black and white cinematography and carries it into all aspects of the production. It’s the nitty-gritty, the somber, the absolute disgusting side of war dolled out without much hesitation.

It fits nicely into the world developed in pictures such as The Steel Helmet (1951) and Red Badge of Courage (1951), except one can contend that Ichikawa takes it even further into the abyss. In fact, it would also serve as a fine companion piece for the provocative docu-drama The General’s Naked Army Marches On (1987).

However, not for a moment would I bash David Lean’s landmark epic nor the performances of such titans as Alec Guinness and William Holden. The pictures succeed in their portrayals in part because of their contrasting approaches to the same futility of war. That statement is made in both but the mode of expression is radically different.

If my recollections are correct we never hear explicitly where the action takes place though we can make many educated assumptions. Fittingly, in the last frame, we are told. The Philippine Front, 1945. Not that it matters. It could have been any war in any place.

There are anti-war statements and there are absolute anti-war immersions, arguably none more devastating than Kon Ichikawa’s effort here. Because to be trapped knee deep in this hell hole you know there is no way that such a world should exist. And yet we cannot be so naive to believe that such a shocking scenario is only of the imagination. It’s a troubling film to watch because we can’t help but be assaulted with the truth even as we would like nothing better than to bury it.

How can life get to such an intolerable point where death is perceived to be a greater gift than life? In not so flippant terms, maybe war is hell. Man turned against man. There is no harmony. There is no peace,  only chaos and destruction waiting for us around every corner.

The novel on which the film was based purportedly ends with our narrator taking on a Christian perspective and gaining a more optimistic outlook on Man and life after the war. However, I have few qualms with Ichikawa’s interpretation, though more downbeat, it makes the equally frank assertion that Man is prone to evil and violence. If Man was wholly good there would be no war. But something quakes within us that makes us belligerent. The age-old question remains what or who can save us from this world of death?

4/5 Stars

Shoplifters (2018)

Shoplifters_(film).jpgHirokazu Kore-eda has quickly become one of my favorite Japanese directors, and I consider it fortuitous that this affinity has cropped up in such a fertile period. Shoplifters is a high watermark in his already illustrious career.

Many folks are probably quick to label him the modern generation’s Ozu because it is an easy and harmless claim to make — a very complimentary one at that. Though, Kore-eda himself rightfully likens his work to Ken Loach or even Mikio Naruse. But if we conjure these names it seems equally apt to consider Vitorio De Sica, particularly The Bicycle Thieves, especially in the context of this film.

He’s shown it before but Kore-eda exposes us to a different stratum of Japan. It is more personal, humble, and if we can make the claim, more realistically transparent. You will not see his world in Lost in Translation (2003). Because he shows us something that many people probably would not want to acknowledge, much less those making the laws and running Japanese society.

His central characters are a husband and wife, Osamu (Lily Franky) and Nobuyo (Sakura Ando), who approach life as counter-cultural enigmas within the country at-large. He is a struggling day laborer, hampered by a sprained ankle, and she is ultimately laid off from her position at a local laundry firm. These are hardly spoilers and more so remarkable indications of just how extraordinary their relationships are. Because together they form a ragtag yet tight-nit nucleus of a family.

Living with them are Grandma (Kiki Kirin), a runaway hostess club worker named Aki (Mayu Matsuoka), and a taciturn son named Shota. The beauty is how we know these individuals as part of a symbiotic unit. We assume each one is a sister or a son until we realize just how unique this “family” really is.

It begins coming into focus when the “parents” take in a lost little girl named Yuri. There are signs of neglect and even abuse on the part of her parents that leave her seemingly detached from the world. But through constant nurturing and their own brand of endearment, she begins to come out of her shell and feel safe once more. It is through the lens of her situation we most distinctly view the discrepancies apparent in such an overtly unified society.

It is a movie that I must consider in the context of actually spending a great deal of time living in Tokyo. Because the city itself is wonderful, the streets are clean, everything has order and tranquility. But it all comes down to being perceptive. If you look around you begin to see the flaws, the skeletons in the closets, and the issues residing very near the surface.

You have this monumental epidemic of loneliness in this sea of humanity, the reality that many old people die alone without a network of community. Similarly, because they have little welfare or funds, the elderly often take up menial jobs just to survive in their old age. Fewer and fewer people are getting married. The population in Japan is slowly declining.

All types of folks fritter away their days (and money) in Pachinko parlors, or they seek out some kind of intimacy through tawdry forms of sensual pleasure. Even well-to-do families — those who represent what we might call “The Japanese Dream,” fathers with well-paying jobs, a beautiful wife with fine, intelligent kids — they can be dying a little bit every day on the inside too.

If the Shoplifters is capable of pointing us to anything meaningful, at the very least, it suggests how imperative personal relationships are. They must be built on affection and genuine concern. There must be space for feelings and love and closeness. Ironically, for a place with so many people, Tokyo is just about the most isolating place you can possibly exist in.

The film also creates this utterly riveting dichotomy that we might tie back to De Sica’s famed neo-realist picture. Because many people will see the film’s title and frame the entire narrative through that window of perception. Here is a family living in poverty and stealing produce and things to make ends meet. On a surface level, this is all true. In fact, we meet Osamu and Shota in the act of their very meticulous thievery of a grocery store. It begs that question, what would you do to provide for your family?

However, one could argue Shoplifters takes it a step or two further along this moral gradient. What really is right and wrong? Are the ways we monitor the differences in society really just or is there more nuance to the definitions than we normally give allowance for?

To another point, yes, this family is breaking the law. There is no doubt about it whatsoever, and yet you look at how they treat one another and live with such close-knit bonds and you wonder. Again, it is the so-called “honest citizens” who treat their children’s lives with such detachment or worst yet derelicting their duties as parents entirely. They substitute material things for true concern. There is no competition. One is utterly infectious and meaningful, brimming with life and authenticity. The other feels callous, shallow, and fake.

If it is a critique, then it works in the most benevolent commentary known to man. Kore-eda has such an elegant, non-confrontational approach to his material, you never feel like you’re are being preached to. Instead, he rightfully invests in onscreen relationships to make them feel genuine.

Because if shoplifting is in the title, this movie is, nevertheless, an exploration of so many vast and varied topics that are well worth our time and money to consider. Kore-eda makes each one more than worthwhile through his deft touch and handling of each character. His children feel real and genuine even as his adults have multi-faceted contours worth pulling back.

In Matsuoka’s scenes at her work, the few solitary moments we have there somehow evoked Paris, Texas (1984) for me. Because in one sense, we are provided certain expectations — this outer veneer with preconceived notions of what this place will be — only to have them be subverted in the most beautifully illuminating manner possible.

The most meaningful revelation comes when she finally comes face-to-face with one of her customers in a small, intimate space. The man, who barely utters a sound, does not even crave sexual intimacy but simply contact of the most basic nature He’s lying in her lap docilely, just listening to her talk and sharing a moment for a couple of solitary minutes. They form a connection even in this short span — perhaps more affecting than anything else that has happened to either of them in recent memory.

Out of all the scenes in the movie, this one literally broke my heart. It’s difficult to describe but it is one of the best examples I can put to the debilitating loneliness often found in a place like Tokyo. You begin to understand how monumentally alone people might feel. These are not depraved folks seeking out sensual gratification; these are the isolated men and women looking for some human contact; any contact. You don’t hug in Japan. Even the physical touch in itself is life-giving. Our main family embodies this kind of affection to the core of their being.

While the final act takes us into new territory and for different reasons the makeshift family gets pulled apart at the seams, there is still this wistful sense of relationship. It was never discord that was going to break them apart. It always had to do with the outside stressors and rigid reinforcement of the world around them.

Even in this social structure they still find brief momentary nuggets of continual joy and familial warmth. These emotions are so powerful and so very difficult to hold onto but when you can they imbue life with so much meaning. One prime example is a family pilgrimage to the beach — getting them out of the hustle and bustle of Tokyo life — for a bit of freedom.

Kirin Kiki is phenomenal again in this picture and while not her actual swan song, it is a fitting final testament to her versatile and highly perceptive talents. Although I’ve become acquainted with her quite recently, she will be dearly missed on the cinematic landscape.

The ultimate beauty of this film, however, is the very fact it is not about one individual but the whole interwoven network of lives stitched together. It does feel like a humbling experience. It is a film that suggests revelation can come from the most unassuming of places. We can learn more from a lowly thief than we might ever learn from all the professors, salarymen, and bigwigs in Tokyo. It is a stirring reminder of where true worth and priorities need to come from.

4.5/5 Stars

 

Only Yesterday (1991)

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Only Yesterday’s opening images resonate with me because of their sheer familiarity. The reflections of urban life in a skyscraper. Office buildings with desks, computers, copy machines. All those necessities of the modern working world.  This is the personification of the status quo that many of us are used to, not simply in a place like Tokyo in the 1980s, but all over the world even right now. Many of us know that life intimately. It’s the first of innumerable moments where Only Yesterday will provide instances of immediate recognition.

From what I gather, Only Yesterday redefined what anime was capable of and really what was considered appropriate subject matter for the medium. This is not only a children’s film though it looks back at adolescence. It’s equally a film for adults and a female audience with its narrative fluidly cycling between childhood memories and current recollections; the point of view belongs to a single independent working woman named Taeko.

These are the two distinct time frames that Isao Takahata’s film works within. In 1966 Taeko was just a girl. And it’s true that all those remembrances of childhood only exist as wisps of their former clarity. Visually the flashbacks are composed of minimalist watercolor backgrounds that manage to capture the transient nature and washed out qualities of our memories. Often recalled fondly but never captured with the same vibrancy that we had in the moment.

And the mystery of the mind is that it can so quickly recall a moment based on a time, a place, a person, a thing, or for no particular reason at all. It could be a vacation floating in the baths of Atami. The novelty and the ultimate letdown of a pineapple not yet ripe. But there are cultural recollections too like the Beatles exploding at Budokan or your older sisters sporting miniskirts as members of the emerging pop culture generation.

Meanwhile, school life is full of your typical scenarios including landmark decisions about hall monitors chasing offenders through the hallways. Young romance is awkward and innocent, blooming around a baseball diamond.

After a single injudicious conversation, talk of periods blows up all across school with the subject becoming the boys’ new favorite point of humor. Taeko also shows off her talents as “Village Child A” in the school play, finding ways to extend her performance and make something out of nothing. She simultaneously looks to commit death by fractions. I must say that I relate. I never did like fractions.

Further still, there are sisterly tiffs over enamel hand bags and altercations with fathers who are normally calm and distant but in a single moment lash out in anger. They are the type of incidences that remain emblazoned on your mind. Meanwhile, mothers scold and chide their children.

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But the true fascination in these events come in the very fact that once more they are tied to the present and lay the foundation for who Taeko is. The same can be said for each and every one of us. However, in 1982 she is now a young working professional. Still, unmarried and quite content with that aspect of her existence even as she bonds with her distant cousin Toshio.

Her aspirations are to spend more time in the countryside — a  countryside blessed with tranquility and gorgeous panoramas — situated in sharp contrast to her life in Tokyo. Because it is in the said countryside where she begins to find a life that somehow feels far more fulfilling. The work and the living are simple but the people are kind and it somehow feels more purposeful. It’s also a prime environment to gather yourself and reflect on life.

Only Yesterday exhibits truly breathtaking imagery that captures both the minutiae and the exquisite scenery of Japan with this fascinating mode of realism. It is only improved upon by the fact that it is a drawn world capable of gravity-defying feats that nevertheless personify authentic emotions. And yet it fits the film on the whole because this is a story that seems to find a rooted contentment in what we would term the mundane. As this is a film that evokes memory, it’s fitting that such a thing would be so.

One of the great mysteries of the world even today is that it’s these very things that are most meaningful to us as human beings. Sure, we remember the big life events but oftentimes equally important are the other times. Because what is life if not a series of small incremental events connected together through experience, jubilation, sadness, wistfulness, pain, and contentment? Each of us carves out a road for ourselves that cuts through the past to the present to a future that we have yet to discover.

The original Japanese title translated is “memories come tumbling down” and somehow that resonates with me far more, being the nostalgic person that I am. It’s true. Certain memories will always be attached to a distinct time and place. Some good, some bad, but all a single element in this patchwork of life. Here is a film that deftly navigates the past and the present through various fragments, assembling the shards into a story that derives satisfaction in all its diversions. Taeko is able to get nearer to the life that she longs for. In that respect, Only Yesterday is in one sense an enchanting film but also a sincerely fulfilling exploration of humanity.

4.5/5 Stars

 

 

From Up on Poppy Hill (2011)

Kokurikozaka_kara_film_poster.jpgThe song “Sukiyaki” sung by Kyu Sakamoto proved such a charming enigma for me. Here was a record that was so quintessentially Japanese, a melodious ballad, that was nevertheless branded in the West with a more novel title and became a smash hit. However, here within the framework of this anime, the song feels perfectly at home once more as “Ue o Muite Arukō” an impeccable benchmark of an era in Japan’s history. It’s true that the full extent of the musical score is noticeably more western than we might be used to with anime yet the cornerstone of the soundtrack is Sakamoto’s iconic tune.

What we are given by director Goro Miyazaki and a script by his father Hayao Miyazaki is a small-scale nostalgia piece that still manages to have broader implications for all of Japan. More crucial yet is how it aims to hone in on a story that is part family melodrama, part love story, and even a high school feel-good tale.

We are planted in Yokohama (south of Tokyo), circa 1963, with the nation setting its sights on the 1964 Olympics famously documented in films such as Kon Ichikawa’s official documentary and Walk Don’t Run (1966). Here Up From Poppy Hill gives a more up close and personal approach that allows us to empathize with a very different type of narrative.

Because even with the pull for modernity feeling so prevalent, there is this sense that Japan, as not only a nation but a culture, must not forget the past. Yes, the war years were rife with so many tragedies but therein still lie traditions and the ways of old that must not be forgotten.

The greatest emblem within the confines of the film is the so-called “Latin Quarter” on the high school campus — a dingy rickety old building that serves as headquarters for many of the school’s circles including philosophy, chemistry, archaeology, and of course, the school newspaper.

Umi is a young student who must help run her family’s boarding house by preparing meals daily after school and the like. But after a fateful encounter, she is drawn to become a member of the academy’s journalism circle transcribing news.

One of the figures who leaves an impression on her is Shun, a stalwart member of the journalism circle, who is part of a band of students intent on fixing up their headquarters. But more so than that these audacious students must plead with the local chairman to reverse his plans to demolish the old relic. For them the reasons are twofold. First off, it’s their home and secondly, it’s part of their history.

Poppy Hill also takes great care to consider Umi and Shun’s parents. Her mother is a professor and her father was a sailor who died during the Korean War. Shun’s past is something that’s even more murky, clouded by facts that he’s never quite been able to reconcile. Their coming together at school proves a near act of fate since their personal histories are tied closer than they could have ever known. Again, the past and the present prove equally important to their identity.

The main draw for me is the throes of nostalgia that wrap up the picture. Pictorials that capture the innate beauty of living in Japan generations before with the harbor and the fresh sea air off in the distance. While simultaneously you have the degradation left over from the war and the increasing pollutants which come with what is termed “progress.” It’s true that in all things there can be derived both a positive and a negative. The same could be said of the love/hate relationship with the U.S. and the constant give and take between progress and remembering the past. These issues prove universally applicable.

But this is never a story to dwell on the bad, far more content with forging an innocent and genial path. That’s one of its finest attributes and you can see Hayao Miyazaki’s own warmth coming up through the seams. There is little animosity here as it’s replaced by laughter and more pleasant aspirations. While son might never reach the heights of his father as a storyteller, Up From Poppy Hill is nevertheless a quaint tale that brims with benevolence.

3.5/5 Stars

Grave of the Fireflies (1988)

Grave_of_the_Fireflies_Japanese_poster.jpgAnime is very much a Japanese art form denoted by its style, the visuals, and even the depiction of its characters with wide eyes all the better to convey emotions. Oftentimes the images onscreen are a great deal more stagnant than the real-time action that American animators try and replicate with a greater frame rate.

Maybe American animation is more “realistic” but what the Japanese films have is an unrivaled beauty almost like watercolors or as if canvases of actual paintings are making up the backdrop for our characters to reside in. There’s even a line of inspiration that can undoubtedly be drawn from Japan’s own rich tradition of vibrant scroll and woodblock paintings.  Far from being derided as childish fare, cartoons are given a platform as art and they are executed as such.

Thus, it’s fitting that Grave of the Fireflies brought to us by renowned Ghibli Studios and the acclaimed director Isao Takahata would utilize this very Japanese style to tell a native story full of pain, suffering, chaos, and survival. His canvas includes exquisite landscapes that glorify the Japanese countryside but more often than not provide a muted even sobering lens to view the ashes and destitution that war sows. The wounds and the scars. The dead bodies left in the streets and the dirtiness that pervades daily life. It’s offensive to the eyes. All of this because American planes drop fire bombs to break the will of the enemy.

In western minds, it almost seems like an incongruity that a film can be both a stark war-torn drama and an animated picture but Grave of the Fireflies proves emphatically that this simply is not the case.

There are very few films brimming with so much emotion, so powerful and evocative and so fully invested in the human experience. There is an innate understanding of the pure destructiveness in the totality of war. It breeds very little that is good. Ripping families apart, causing children to grow up too fast, and subjecting mankind to excruciating loss and indignity.

But in my estimation, it remains far too simplistic to simply state that Grave of the Fireflies is an indictment of the carnage of war or that it is an anti-war picture because its scope is so much greater than that.

Notice what Takahata doesn’t do. He doesn’t make the Americans into dehumanized monsters or anything else. They are just absent, faceless individuals that we will never know. However, he does give us a front row seat to the events through the eyes of two other people.

I think it’s an especially uncomfortable and maybe an important perspective for Americans because instead of seeing ourselves front and center of this epic story of WWII amid both its victories and tragedies, we are only a distant force. This film causes us to take on the viewpoint of those on the other side of the Pacific. This wasn’t just an emblematic figure like Tojo or some crazed, inhuman killer that we were looking to take down.

It becomes clear from the outset that the people being displaced from their homes by firebombs and struggling with rationing and families getting split apart by conflict are not so unlike us.

Takahata brilliantly gears us up for a story that could not be more universal. It doesn’t take place on a battlefield. It doesn’t involve war rooms or army barracks. It’s about two siblings. An older brother Seita and his little baby sister Setsuko.

Together they provide the core of the film. Because Setsuko is one of those precocious little kids who undoubtedly does not comprehend the gravity of all the chaos that swirls around her. All she knows is that she wants to see her mother or that she’s hungry or that she wants her favorite Sakura fruit drops. And her brother provides for her and sticks to her closely with fortitude and faithfulness that makes their bond one of the most affecting connections between cinematic siblings.

I would be hardpressed to guess how old Seita is but there’s no doubt that he’s forced to act quite a lot older than should be necessary under normal circumstances. His father is gone in the navy. His mother is debilitated. He must be his sister’s keeper and everything else for her. Her friend, her playmate, and her protector from a traumatic world that she cannot begin to understand. Since they only have each other and as they skrimp by, as an audience we realize just how abhorrent their conditions are and how no child should ever have to know a life of malnutrition or obliteration.

It’s easy to marvel at the animation because whereas normally we would probably take care in depicting actions of great consequence, a picture such as this finds time to articulate the little things that feel so human. Fiddling with a piece of clothing, scratching an itchy mosquito bite, or simply frolicking along the shoreline for the sheer relish of the moment.

It’s these smaller interludes and touches that give even greater import to the larger ones. A childhood home burning down with a whole host of others so that an entire town looks drastically different. A brother and sister who are forced to live on their own thanks to the glacial welcome they receive from distant relatives. And ultimately the inevitable comes knocking: death.

But just as the titular fireflies fill young Setsuko with a certain awe and wide-eyed wonderment, even in death there seems to be some distant even elusive sense of hope. In a world that can hardly be fathomed, Seita and Setsuko are reunited; no longer plagued by their suffering, their path illuminated once more by nature’s shining beacons of light. While we might have slightly different views about the afterlife, there’s no doubt that we share a desire for such an outcome after death.

Where graves will be emptied. Death will be no more. Pain will have ended. War will be over. Families will be restored. Wounds will be healed and peace will be the final resounding note. Do not let your flame be extinguished by hate, burdens, or dissatisfaction but know that there is so much more to life. In their enduring innocence in the face of such devastation, Seita and Setsuko are a stirring reminder.

Because life is not simply upended by tragedy. It is also fortified by hope. That’s part of what makes it worth living. As Dylan Thomas once eulogized, “rage, rage against the dying of the light.” Do not let your youth be quelled. Do not let your optimism be forfeited. Do not give up your capacity for love. It’s well worth the fight.

5/5 Stars

Tampopo (1985)

220px-Tampopo_cover.jpgJuzo Itami’s so-called ramen western Tampopo is unequivocably original in its hilarity, opening with what could best be called a public service announcement. A suave gangster is getting ready for the movie screening only to be disrupted by a noisy bag of curry potato chips. He threatens the foodie and sits back down to enjoy the entertainment, concluding the film within a film.

What follows in the actual movie is an unabashed love letter to food with some oddly sensual elements. It has off-beat scatterbrained touches of humor that send it in all sorts of odd directions, picking up momentary storylines and varying vignettes focused on different people all over Japan with the one unifying element being the food that they eat and enjoy.

There are the businessmen going out for a meal together who all order the same thing in deference to their leader only to be put off by their youngest associate who turns out to be well-versed in French cuisine and champagne. Then a society of women gets a lesson in how to eat Spaghetti like a true westerner which apparently means shoveling noodles into your face and making as much noise as you possibly can. They`re not wrong per se. Even the aforementioned debonair gangster and his lover turn up several more times romancing each other over their favorite dishes.

But the main attraction and the one that takes up most of the runtime has to do with the art of the perfect ramen shop with touches of what can best be termed a ramen western (an oriental rendition of Italy’s own affectionate spinoff, Spaghetti Westerns).

Goro (Tsutomu Yamazaki) and his sidekick Gun (Ken Watanabe) ride into town in their big rig and happen on a ramen shop that’s not doing so well. Its proprietor is a single mother who lives with her young son and looks to maintain the establishment after the death of her husband.

Unfortunately, she’s not much of a chief or a businesswoman and the shop has been suffering as a result. Thus, the newcomers main objective becomes turning the humble Lai Lai into a 3 star ramen operation. They are the hired hands who swoop in to save the helpless villagers, metaphorically speaking.

Recall Seven Samurai, The Magnificent Seven, or Shane and you`ll probably be on the right track. In this particular rendition, the first order of business is a name change to Tampopo Ramen. A regiment of further fortifications follows thereafter.

Goro takes his new benefactor to scout out the major competition in the area, gleaning from their success and also their failures. A good ramen shop has no wasted movement and provides a quiet atmosphere for the customers to savor.

Next, Tampopo trains with the foremost masters who know how to make a truly delectable bowl of ramen in every dimension. Finally, Goro and his compatriots help build a team to ensure her little shop will have the best of everything from food, to decor, and, of course, noodles. They are ready to face the inevitable onslaught headed their way: The lunch rush.

In her final test, Tampopo succeeds with flying colors. Goro`s work here is done so he can drift on further down the road a spell until another ramen shop catches his interest.

To its very core, Tampopo is a meandering film that ambles along forcing no clear agenda nor does it seem intent on getting to a certain destination. Instead, as it roams it slowly causes us to become attuned to the simple pleasures of food while wrapping us further still in the idiosyncrasies of humanity. This is the holy grail for ramen-lovers everywhere. It will make their mouth’s water in frame after frame and leave them raising an eyebrow on more than one occasion.

It’s possible to guarantee that you’ve probably never seen a film quite like Tampopo. While it revels in Japan’s rich culture of food it may not be for everyone. The same might be said of Japanese cuisine. I for one am more partial to the noodles but the film no doubt has a few savory moments.

4/5 Stars

I Was Born But… (1932)

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What strikes me right away about Yasujiro Ozu’s silent classic is just how relatable it feels. Yes, this is a Japanese film and yes, it’s silent too but watching the scenarios play out on screen have an undoubted timelessness. This is decidedly fresh material that’s blessed with humor and grace like the best silent comedies.

It’s a narrative about two young boys who have moved with their family to the Tokyo suburbs. As is usually the case it’s brought on by their father’s work and the whole family must get used to it. For the boys specifically, that means a new school and getting to know the neighborhood kids with their carefully enacted social hierarchy. Simply put, the biggest kid rules the roost and the new kid on the block is always bound to get the worst of it.

So obviously we witness the ensuing verbal skirmishes and a few fistfights where the clogs come off and are brandished as built-in weaponry. That’s all part of the rite of passage where the brothers must prove themselves. If we learn anything from this comedy, again, it’s the fact that many things have not changed all that much. Boys haven’t changed that much. At least not in the core important things that still hold weight.

Certainly, this is a less organized and less done up exploration compared to Ozu’s later endeavors but that’s part of the charm. The comedy at times is so pure and simple it gives the sensation of some of the early kid comedies like Our Gang or Chaplin’s The Kid (1921). Watching the posse of boys scamper every which way necessitates no understanding of language or culture. Watch and you understand.

Sparrow’s eggs preclude the pumice stones in Ohayo (1959) decades later as the boy’s favorite keepsake. In this particular hierarchy, it buys them a coveted place at the house of the richest kid whose parents are showing off their home movies. It’s a novel thing for all the boys and they look on with baited breath.

As it turns out, the Yoshi boys’ father is a real cut up, a real funny man, and they couldn’t be more ashamed, from the self-deprecating performance he gives for the bosses camera. This is far more than a few images that garner a few laughs. This is an affront to their father’s character and subsequently their family honor. But this hardly ever feels like a Japanese cultural issue, this is an issue that arises in the hearts and minds of proud, naive boys.

It’s the colliding viewpoints of children and adults and rather surprisingly the film is willing to look at the perspective of the kids. If Ozu’s initial work shares any similarity with Ohayo many years later, it’s at this juncture. The boys decide to protest their father by keeping silent and not acknowledging his presence since he has wounded them so egregiously. They’ve mastered the scowl to perfection as they glower in the front yard eating their mother’s onigiri. It seems like they’ll never be able to face the other kids again and they’ll never forgive their father.

Those very themes alone make this universal storytelling and it’s easy to forget for even a moment that this is a film brought to us from 1930s Japan. Because there is something going on here that feels so real. Every young boy wants to think of their father as a big deal, the king of the hill, a big success, and when we are met with anything that seems to contradict that vision we have, it does hurt us.

Still, what the story does well is to find a resolution where the boys can still be content in who their father is, beginning to comprehend a little bit the situation he is in. Even as they get a little help from the local paperboy to vanquish the local bullies, they ultimately gain a small dose of sympathy for their dad. If they don’t quite understand why he has to say good morning to his boss every day and treat him with such deference, as they grow older they might start to appreciate him more.

However, it does seem like something is lost in the translation of this title for American audiences but the subtitle does suggest more meaning. This is an “Adult’s Picture Book View” so we are looking at a child’s world from an adult perspective and though it’s inherently funny we gain a greater respect for both children and parents.

4.5/5 Stars