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

After The Storm (2016)

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There is a phenomenon in Japan called hikikomori (pulling inward). It mostly applies to 20-somethings. But in 2017 an article came out in The New York Times to document a different and yet somehow similar occurrence.

Many older people risk the chance of dying alone if they have no family because many live without a network of community and neighbors while in such proximity might still leave them invariably isolated. I have lived there for an extended period of time, granted as a foreigner, and yet I could feel the weight of such an environment

Thus, the dutiful grown children worry about their parents, about being the good son or the good daughter. Ryota’s mother is a wonderful lady. She gives him a playful slug in the stomach, tells him to his face he’s a horrible liar but always in love. Quibbles ensue between siblings over taking advantage of their mother’s good graces since she lives only off her pension following the death of her husband years back.

And yet there is a certain relish in these core relationships because even if it’s not a perfect picture you get the sense that mother and son care deeply for each other. It’s the films most gratifying interaction watching Hiroshi Abe and Kiki Kirin play off each other. Menial events take on the utmost meaning because they manage to color the characters in honest ways and the film has many of these seemingly inconsequential moments. That’s a product of its pacing.

For people who haven’t lived in Tokyo, preconceived notions of it might come from the likes of Lost in Translation (2003). Personified by ultra-hip areas like Shinjuku, Shibuya, and Harajuku touted for their nightlife and shopping. But there are a lot of other places too as director Hirokazu Kore-eda suggests. The Tokyo made up of suburbs, apartment complexes, and more ordinary landscapes. The Nerimas and Kiyoses of the world.

Coppola’s film worked because it was going for the perspective of an outsider. I enjoyed After The Storm immensely because it has the attention to detail and the touches of a local — someone who has known this terrain intimately.  I distinctly remember the first time I ever came back to the states knowing I would soon be returning to Japan. And in that moment I no longer felt like a tourist but someone with a new sort of understanding. It’s crucial because it changes your entire outlook and what you deem important. The big moments aren’t as relevant as the day-to-day.

Abe’s performance is so exquisitely rendered because while the picture is by no means a comedy his various ticks, expressions, even his lumbering figure are humorous without ever truly meaning to be. And they are organic moments that never feel forced. In other words, they are human and so despite his shortcomings, there’s something that resonates about him. When we look at his life we see a bit of his restlessness. He’s still not the man he wants to be. He realizes that.

His ex-wife is seeing another man. The rich new boyfriend feels like a universal trope that doesn’t need much explanation. Meanwhile, Ryota rarely gets to see his son, only on prearranged days were he pays child support. He’s notoriously bad on making their meetings on time. That and other reasons are hints to why his wife left him. That doesn’t mean he doesn’t hold onto some wistfulness, especially where his son is involved.

Though once an award-winning author most recently he’s taken on a job as a private investigator. He says it’s only temporary — research for his latest project — but it’s been going on far too long. He’s started getting used to it and so have his coworkers.

The film’s point of departure and ultimate revelation, if there is one, comes in the wake of a typhoon. Again, living in Japan you understand that this is a fairly common occurrence. But it’s the regular person’s side of Tokyo away from the bright lights.

Trying to field lost lottery tickets in the swirling downpour or shielding oneself inside a slide at a park watching the debris fly by is enough of a diversion because the intent is to consider not so much environmental changes but how our characters change.

Of course, implicit in the translated title is that there is something new (あたらしい) about life. And yet when we get on the other side of the storm it’s difficult to know. That would be the form of a typical film. To make the before and the after drastically different. Here the characters have changed — no doubt — but externally their behavior seems all but the same. The development is incremental and internalized.

I appreciate that. In life, there is rarely a megaphone to announce change for us. Sometimes it’s imperceptible to the eye. It’s even notoriously difficult to acknowledge some changes in ourselves. And yet we know they are there. Because to our last breath, we are indubitably a work in progress. We will never be perfect. That’s part of what makes life and this film thoroughly intriguing. What’s more is that it still glimmers with a certain hopefulness.

4/5 Stars

 

Densha Otoko (2005)

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In English, it means Train Man and it finds its origins in a media franchise that now includes Manga, a book, a television show, and of course this movie. But the events of the story are purportedly based on real life when a young otaku (Japanese tech nerd) in Akihabara came to the defense of a woman on a train who was being accosted by a drunken businessman.

This isolated, geeky 22-year old male was her knight in shining armor and probably had never talked to a girl before in his life. Every syllable comes out of his mouth jumbled, rushed, and breathless. If they were American we would say that she’s out of his league — the head cheerleader or what have you.

But the film is blessed because it is set in Japan. Densha Otoko proves to be part dorky rom-com while also giving us a view into a unique subculture. While it deals in stereotypes somewhat, we see his constant communications taking place over online chat and although it’s dated by today’s standards the Akihabara vibe is unquestionable as is the integration of technology into modern day romance.

At the time we were on the cusp of where we’re at now and you see the signs of it. Flip phones and laptops on the train. People at their computers at work and home. Such luxuries have become increasingly more invasive and some might say they have come at the detriment of human relationship.

What this film does well is to consider both rather implicitly with online friends on one side acting as his constant peanut gallery offering conflicting pieces of advice, constant pep talks, and further considerations as they all analyze his prospects as a body.

Then, of course, we have this demure woman he stood up for on the train. She might be the Japanese iteration of a manic pixie dreamgirl — granted I’m not sure what that means exactly — no matter she’s considerate and sweet. Their interactions continue with a present sent as a Thank You, then a dinner where they split the bill, and several other affable encounters.

The film’s aesthetic might be off-putting to some as it reflects a world constantly interfacing with their screens. Further suggesting the interweb of relationships that are created where people only know each other online, denoted by a continuously split screen and yet their lives spill outside of that and we get a small taste of not just Densha Otoko but all of his fan club. These characters too could have used more definition but they serve their purpose.

Train Man pushes onward and enters territory that none of them could have ever dreamed of. And he does it by being as nervous and frantic and considerate as ever. He gets a haircut (thank goodness), buys some new duds, and tries a few other techniques. Researching dinner conversations and testing the food beforehand. It’s actually quite sweet if he weren’t so uncomfortable to watch. But then again, who am I to judge?

Still, what matters is the time they spend together. It’s pleasant and kind not interrupted by awkward kisses or embarrassing hijinks with best friends. It just the two of them and he tries to discern how to move forward with this girl on that ever perilous tightrope of male-female relationships. They’ll at least have men befuddled for eternity. I can’t speak for the ladies.

That’s not to say there aren’t throw away moments or wacky and slightly peculiar ones that we probably could have done without. I won’t bother listing them because most importantly the film remains in our good graces for what it’s mainly set out to do. Allowing a socially awkward underdog a chance to shine. Through all his tripping and falling, sniveling and awkwardness, he gets some amount of satisfaction.

Consolidate it down to its best themes and scenes and you have a rewarding picture of just that. Because after all, it’s fairly easy to forgive a heartfelt movie like this for its gaffs since even in those very things it’s staying true to its core hero: Densha Otoko.

Likewise, I’m going to stick by my guns and enjoy this film perhaps more than I should have and yet in its innocence and jubilation, I found something that is so often lacking in American films trying to work within the same genre. Tighter editing would have been a major benefit but I’ll always hold that sincerity covers a multitude of faults. Call me an old softie if you will but maybe it’s the fact that I’m probably an otaku at heart. Whether he gets the girl or not, he has my sympathy.

3.5/5 Stars

Review: Hiroshima Mon Amour (1959)

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Like you I know what it is to forget and yet still be endowed with memory. These are only a couple fragments from this film stitched together but in many ways, they encapsulate the essence of its core themes.

I suppose such words ring true for all of us and Alain Resnais’ film is composed of a plethora of equally perplexing paradoxes that though never quite coming into full clarity nevertheless prove Hiroshima Mon Amour to be one of the most bewitching cinematic expressions born out of the French cinema. Without question, it is an undisputed touchstone of the forthcoming Nouvelle Vague that blew up the conventions of the 1960s.

The first time I ever saw Resnais’ romantic meditation there was something so arresting about it such that I will never forget the likes of Nevers and Hiroshima — the two entities that make up this film as not simply places of past tragedy but crucial to the very identities of the characters who come within the frame.

We never need to know the true names of this French actress (Emanuelle Riva in a riveting performance of immense grace) and the equally candid Japanese architect (Eiji Okada) who fall into the throes of a passionate affair together. They are represented well enough by these monikers — symbolic torchbearers of these names — emblematic of the age they ascribed to.

Like L’Eclisse (1961) or Dr. Strangelove (1964), this film too is in the wake of the atomic bomb and any subsequent discussion thereof cinematically speaking must at least acknowledge such films. Part of the necessity in this specific case is how the film takes a particular event and then extends it and intertwines it with so much more in such a way that it not only a monument to Hiroshima but a testament to human history.

We are people so quick to forget. We lose sight of the past. We bury our hurts deep inside. We are doomed to repeat many of our past mistakes. But still, more so we are capable of passions, emotions, and love that carry us through times of tribulation, pain, and suffering. It’s something to be immensely thankful for.

Resnais film is one of the great visual marvels of the 20th century with its graceful fade-outs and flashbacks — delicate camera zooms connecting memories and realities. Stylistically there’s a continuous poetic cadence of image and dialogue, repetitions with recollections. A solemnity exists in its very purposeful pacing that ties everything together with the utmost elegance which, far from being a muddled hodgepodge, forms a perplexing experience never to be fully elucidated.

It has very few equals and remains so as an achievement that can hardly be defined as a typical love story or any such blase categorization. It’s what we might conceive when we think of Film as art worthy of any sphere of discussion.

There’s hardly a meter to begin measuring how it makes us feel or the emotions it elicits.  Somehow connected to fate — two lovers crossing paths — these two individuals seemingly meant to be together and tied together not only by their romantic passion but their own histories. The striking flashback structure subsequently creates tiny microcosms of emotional resonance that flood with abandon.

Recollections of past scars unearthed over the course of the love affair. Both historical and personal. We have the depiction of the devastation in the aftermath of the bomb with images that are all but scorched into our mind’s eye with an unfettered pointedness. We are meant to see these images and take into account how they came into being.

But there’s also the personal trauma brought to the fore and exhumed with a kind of transfixing equanimity that’s hard to fully comprehend but nevertheless leaves us with something to ruminate over. Equally telling is the passage of time as memories begin to fade and minds begin to slowly forget. Again, that is the curse of our beings that we must fight to remember what has come before.

It’s no small coincidence that the cafe that our two lovers rendezvous at is none other than the Casablanca. The yearning and the melancholy are right there in the lyric of “As Time Goes By.” If you’ve never consciously thought about their meaning before then Resnais film might make you hear them anew and be moved.  Love, memory, and heartbreak are often so closely tied together. This is a film that dwells on each and finds some amount of catharsis.

The diversity of the crew is another glimmering bright spot of this joint partnership between nations with an abundance of involvement from both French and Japanese staff taking the shoot on-location to both countries. It’s a lovely marriage and a bond is formed by the picture just as the romance signals a tight-knit cross-cultural relationship on screen.

For some, individuals somewhat attuned to diverse backgrounds, Hiroshima Mon Amour is utterly groundbreaking in this realm. Though its cast is small, it’s a mighty statement having a French woman playing opposite a Japanese man. 50 years on it remains as an image that we do not see all that often, despite the changing of the tides.

Their closeness is palpable. Hands clasping tenderly. Eyes gazing with the deepest longing. The intimacy that they share speaks volumes. Even as it’s undercut by the morose strains of infidelity and wistfulness; this is a love story like few others.

4.5/5 Stars

 

 

 

Ohayo (1959)

Good_morning_dvdIf Yasujiro Ozu can be considered foremost among Japan’s preeminent directors then there’s no doubt that Ohayo (Good Morning in English) is one of his most delightfully silly films. But that’s only on the surface level.

Young boys are unified in their affection for watching sumo on television and passing gas as a great gag to pull on their friends. Nosy housewives gossip incessantly whether it be the next door neighbor’s new washing machine or the mysterious disappearance of dues for the local women’s association. Meanwhile, most of the men go to work and spend their evenings knocking a few back at the bar noting how much the world is changing around them. Then they go home oftentimes a little drunk.

Ohayo is actually a reimagining of one of Ozu’s most remembered early pictures during his silent days I Was Born But… (1932) and yet he skillfully reworks the storyline into an everyday comedy of family and neighborhood drama that’s full of humor and his brand of quietly observant social commentary.

Ozu always took great care in analyzing family units and matrimonial bonds that affected relationships. Although we have a bit of a fleeting young romance in the works, this film’s greatest concern are two young boys from the Hayashi family who are giving their parents the silent treatment until they are allowed to have a television. Their parents are holding out and it begins a rather humorous ordeal as the brothers Minoru and the ridiculously comical Isamu (constantly exclaiming “I Love You”) try to make it through dinner, school, and so many other daily activities without a word.

As he would dissect many times over, Ozu focuses on the generational divide that was emerging and becoming increasingly prevalent in the post-war years as reflected by technological advancements like television and other such devices slowly turning present Japan into a land of a million idiots. At least that’s what the older generations feel.

Still, it’s just as equally occupied with the moral customs that have long ruled the nation where wives can speak so kindly to their neighbors up front only to slander them behind their backs a moment later. Saving face and personal honor is often cared about far more deeply than anything else — even in some circumstances when it happens to be at the expense of another family member.

Perhaps the most troubling thing is the very Japanese predilection to talk about nothing in particular, filling conversations with salutations, pleasantries, and comments on the current weather patterns. It hardly ever gets to anything of substance and that comes in numerous forms. Sometimes it means a young man never gets around to sharing his feelings with a girl or adults never being particularly candid with neighbors or spouses. There’s very little of that kind of transparency to be had. Few of the words passed along between people in conversation mean all that much.

The irony of the whole situation is that, in one such instance, it’s a young son who calls them out on it and he proceeds to get a heavy scolding from his father (Chishu Ryu) who bluntly tells him that he talks too much. Meanwhile, although Izamu can be constantly chiming “I Love You” in English, there’s an uneasy sense that his parents and most certainly his father, might have never said the words to him.

In these very simple ways Ozu rather delicately and still humorously tackles many of the issues that have long plagued an honor-based culture such as Japan’s but he does it with an adroitness that uses touches of humor and his own understanding of human nature to craft yet another universal tale that’s ultimately sympathetic in its portrayals.

It unsurprisingly feels like it could be a Japanese episode of Leave it to Beaver except for the father never has much of a talking to with his sons and the mother may be as put together as June Cleaver but hardly feels ever as affectionately maternal.

Equally spectacular is Ozu’s mise-en-scene which as per usual is meticulously staged and gorgeous in scene after scene. He offers up each individual image in a flat two-dimensional way that can best be described as taking cues from not only the theater but Japanese woodblock paintings with wonderful symmetry and compositions boosted by color.

He uses the clique of adjoining homes as the perfect set to send his characters in and out of with the hint of comedic forethought. While watching characters walking by on the hillside up above the homes — their figures slowly moving in and out of the frame past the houses — this provides some of Ohayo’s most visually stimulating images pleasing the eye incessantly.

There’s always a visual fearlessness that you see in very few others because he not only has color at his disposal but the staging is on point as is his disregard of the 180-degree rule of perspective. It just works. What is more, he also continues to use what could best be called establishing shots by western audiences. Except they hardly ever need to establish anything. It’s as if he simply put them there because they are vivid depictions of the reality he is painting — adding yet another distinct contour to the world he is working with — going beyond the figures that he places within the frame.

There’s no doubt that this is Ozu but not all that surprisingly this might be my personal favorite in his oeuvre for the aforementioned reasons. It feels like Ozu operating at his most playful while nevertheless maintaining his peak form as a filmmaker.

4.5/5 Stars

 

Tokyo Sonata (2008)

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I can’t even begin to comprehend what it’s like to get laid off in Tokyo. In any city, any place, any circumstance it’s one of the feelings which would instigate the formation of a lump in your throat. But Tokyo is swarming with so many people and so much competition; it seems like you would be practically swallowed up. I’m surprised there are any available jobs at all.

That’s what makes it especially demeaning for Ryuhei Sasaki (Teruyuki Kagawa) to go to the unemployment office. He’s long held an administrative job in a prestigious company but when he is suddenly let go, Mr. Sasaki finds that he is overqualified for any amount of work offered him at the agency. Surely, beggars can’t be choosers but no matter how many times you’ve had that phrase shoved down your throat, it doesn’t make such a reality any easier. A janitor is a far cry from a cushy desk job.

By an act of serendipitous chance, he happens upon an old school chum who has been stricken by the same fate and yet being three months in he’s seasoned at the lifestyle of keeping up appearances even as he attends the food line with the homeless. He still dresses in his suit, carries his briefcase, and feigns taking business calls. It’s an unnerving dichotomy that Ryuhei soon readily adopts as well.

But behind every man, there is usually an entire family and Tokyo Sonata is very much a dissection of the Japanese familial unit after a stressor is applied. All parties are affected. But we see the cracks even before the news breaks.

Kenji, the youngest child is caught in class with an erotic manga which he vehemently denies owning. But as an act of retaliation, he calls out his teacher in front of the class for reading similar material on the train. He purportedly saw him and the man has no defense. They meet later in a quieter exchange and his teacher simply states, “Let’s stop poking each other’s wounds and ignore them.”

It’s a morose response to deep issues of loneliness and isolation and while this particular instance pertains to love and sexual intimacy we can take this very same outlook and apply it to many of the film’s dynamics. If we keep things hidden and disregard them things might still work out.

On a whim, Kenji wants to play the piano and yet it’s for a very understandable reason. It’s because of a girl. He has a crush. Well, actually it turns out to be the woman teacher and she’s twice his age and recently divorced but that doesn’t stop him from using his month’s lunch allowance to pay for lessons without his parent’s knowledge. Again, the family operates in secret deceptions. Little white lies and overall detachment.

The eldest son, Takashi, by some peculiar circumstance, is signing up for the American military as a non-citizen for deployment in The Middle East. Of course, he too has moved forward with the plan without consulting his parents. He ambushes his mother with the news quite suddenly because he needs her written approval. He knows that she is the easier touch and doesn’t even bother telling his father at first because he knows full well the response that will come.

Their home life as represented by the dinner table feels like such a sterile environment and that’s in a scenario where none of the chinks are showing. No one says anything in fact. I feel sorry for the woman of the house. As both wife and mother, Megumi (Kyōko Koizumi ) is dutiful and maternal. She’s not necessarily aloof but the world around her feels so unloving and unfeeling. It’s hard to make a contented life for yourself when the entire atmosphere is dictated by the man of the house based on cultural precedence alone.

When the deep-rooted concept of saving face goes so far it means lying to your family I think there’s a problem. Because the lie can’t be kept forever. And even when the people close to you (or not close to you)  don’t let on, eventually they know. It’s devastating to watch since it lacks any of the normal benchmarks we use to measure devastation. It reveals just how matter-of-fact something like this can be. The response is a non-response.

I know full-well that these types of circumstances play out; I’m not sure if I buy every last bit of execution in Tokyo Sonata. It feels a little too contrived. And yet even in the things that feel too perfectly planned there’s no doubt some truth. How everyone in their own way is trying to pull something off behind everyone else’s back. There is distrust in every corner of the house. If even things that aren’t altogether bad are hidden, what about the ones that are catastrophic like losing your job or little dirty secrets like reading racy manga? Multiply that across an entire society and you can readily predict the unnerving implications.

It is a picture where everyone wants to wake up and find out that it is all a bad dream and it very well could be. This is Tokyo Sonata’s true departure from any pretense of the real world and in these moments while the film loses some integrity as a true-to-life drama it undoubtedly gains some inscrutability from visions of hallucinatory nightmares. At these crossroads, we see the clearest articulation of Kiyoshi Kurosawa’s background in J-Horror.

But in the end, the darker mood gives way to the most subdued of crescendos born out of an unassuming performance of “Claire de Lune.” It’s one of the few moments of palpable warmth in the film and it embodies the incomparable magnetism that music has. I can’t think of a better way to salvage Tokyo Sonata. It’s a purposeful statement of not feeling the need to say anything directly. Impeccable for a culture such as this. Maybe it serves to only exacerbate the problem. But change is incremental. It will not happen overnight. This just might be a baby step toward a more personable future.

3.5/5 Stars