Thursday, December 25, 2008

Yôji Yamada and Seijun Suzuki - Mixed Bag

As I said before, I was very impressed by the Cinema Japan series at the PFA in November & December.

Over the past six years, there have been a series of Samurai films released in the US that have been critically praised for humanizing the genre by focusing on the men and their (often conflicted) feelings while trying to uphold the honor of the samurai. The most famous of these films (and the one I have not seen) is Twilight Samurai (2002). The other films I'm familiar with is The Hidden Blade (2004) and Love and Honor (2006). Doing a litle research, I discovered that those three films were directed by Yôji Yamada.

Yamada had three films screened at the Cinema Japan series; I was able to catch two - The Yellow Handkerchief of Happiness and Where Spring Comes Late. I was very impressed with Yamada's ability to pull at my heartstrings. He is able to portray his characters (particularly the males) in complex ways. Often, I was put off by the behavior of the men but yet Yamada can always reel me back to feel sympathy for his characters. Indeed, Yamada's trademark is the happy endings of his films. I often find happy endings contrived and ruinous but Yamada pulled it off in The Yellow Handkerchief of Happiness and Where Spring Comes Late.

I criticized the ending of Love and Honor. I think Yamada was more skillful in weaving the plots in The Yellow Handkerchief of Happiness and Where Spring Comes Late. It's been seven months since I saw Love and Honor; I remember the plot, I remember not liking the ending but I don't recall having such a strong dislike of it. In many cases, directors make some of their best films earlier in their career. I would imagine that it must be stifling to have to end each film on an upbeat note. Also, when I viewed The Yellow Handkerchief of Happiness and Where Spring Comes Late, I was not aware it was the same director of Love and Honor so I was freed of any preconceived bias.

Where Spring Comes Late
was an emotional roller coaster as well as travelogue and social commentary of Japan in 1970. The story involves a miner and his family. For some reason, they are Catholic which is a pretty small minority in Japan. The husband decides to uproot his family, moving them from an island south of Kyushu to, I believe, the northwestern tip of Hokkaido to be dairy farmer. Without a car, the family of five (father, mother, paternal grandfather, son and infant daughter) must traverse the entire length of Japan in trains, planes and ferries.

Along the way, they see the changing nature of Japanese society. Industrialization is a big theme as Yamada includes a number of long, panning shots of factories. They also encounter the disruption this new society is causing. The grandfather was supposed to be left to live with his other son who works at a factory. Upon visiting him, it's clear that leaving grandpa with him would exacerbate his financial situation - crushing mortgage, small house, batch of kids, etc. So grandpa goes to Hokkaido. Chishu Ryu, the actor that plays the old man, delivers a great performance as a man nearing the end of his life who wants to retain some dignity while having his own foibles as well as enjoying the cross county trip.

Where Spring Comes Late (Chishu Ryu, far left and Chieko Baisho, far right)
Anyway, the family sees the world fair, endures the death of the infant and soon after arriving at their desolate, frigid home, the grandfather dies. It looks pretty bleak but in the next scene, it is springtime, the hills are green, their first calf is born and the wife is pregnant. Chieko Baisho, who is a Yamada perennial (she was in The Hidden Blade) also delivers a strong performance as the woman trying to hold her family together despite not wanting to move and her husband's stubborn ways. As if no one can escape Yamada's jaundiced eye, she must whore herself to get money for the trip (with her husband aware if not tacitly approving).


A few years ago, I saw Princess Raccoon (2005) starring Ziyi Zhang. The film was in Japanese although Zhang spoke her lines in Mandarin. I recall not liking the film which was a musical. Princess Raccoon was directed by Seijun Suzuki. Suzuki also directed Tokyo Drifter (1966) which I enjoyed greatly at the Cinema Japan series. I guess even the great ones strikeout sometime.

Tokyo Drifter had scenes that reminded me of the bar fight in Blazing Saddles and an obscure Warren Beatty film called Mickey One (1965). I saw Mickey One (directed by Arthur Penn) nearly 14 years ago at the Castro and I can still recall it so that must mean somthing. Given some of the similarities and that it was made one year before Tokyo Drifter, I wonder if Suzuki was influenced by it.

Here is the SF Chronicle review of the film when it played at the Castro.

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