Lightning (1952)

18 01 2008

In an earlier post I mentioned Mikio Naruse recently being tagged as an “underrated” director. Considering how underrepresented he is on R1 DVD, I agree with this claim. Even more upsetting is how overlooked Naruse is as humorist, even among his own fan base. Certainly humor isn’t completely separated from the rest of Japan’s humanist directors, but none are able to blend comedy with drama as effortlessly as Naruse. Lightning (Inazuma) is a perfect example.

Kiyoki is 23 and living with her mother. She has four older siblings and all of them have a different father. Despite her modernity, Kiyoki is being pressured into marriage. Her sister, Mitsuko is miserable and much of it has to do with her marriage. Kiyoki’s relationship with Mitsuko grows and both drift apart from the third other sister, Nuiko, who is looking forward to marriage. Kiyoki decides to be independent and moves out. She rents a flat and meets Tsubomi and Shozu. Romantic feelings are implied towards to Shozu, but are never acted upon. A truthful and painful touch reminiscent of Il Posto.

Two years prior, in Ginza Cosmetics, Naruse laid out a lot of the themes he would dive deeper into with his later films. The narrative of Ginza is quintessential Naruse: An aging geisha (played by Kinuyo Tanaka) tries to juggle her personal life, emotional trauma and her job. Lightning similarly lays out a lot of the humor he would later use. There is also a couple small visual motifs that Naruse would repeat throughout his career: a pesky cat, kids lighting fireworks, Takamine leaning on a wall and so on. The visual style actually feels closer to Yamanaka’s Humanity and Paper Balloons with fairly long static shots and compellingly detached.

The only familiar face here is Hadeko Takamine and she’s amazing as always. Outside of Daughters, Wives, and a Mother, this is her most downplayed (in terms of actual screen time) performance. Even though I love familiarity it’s nice to see so many new faces delivering such excellent performances.  The final sequence between Kiyoki and her mother cannot be described accurately. It’s something that you just have to witness for yourself.

Tora San (1969)

18 01 2008

I assume most readers are well aware of Yoji Yamada’s 48 episode film series, Tora San but I’ll provide a little background information anyway. Each episode concerns the heartbreak of a traveling salesman, Torajiro. According to wikipedia, the “standard plot” leads to him unintentionally setting up the woman he has fallen for with another man. The series is based on the Japanese television program Goofy Brother and Wise Sister, which aired from 1968 to 1969. Shochiku was understandbly skeptical about a full feature spin-off but Yamada convinced them otherwise. It’s these films that forever put Yamada on the Japanese cinema map.

The series’ first film definitely fits the mold of the narrative in the later films, but I think there’s actually some themes that are a bit more prevalent. We’re introduced to Torajiro (Kiyoshi Atsumi in a career-defining role) via voice-over. He’s going back home after running away twenty years ago. We learn that both of his parents are dead and that his Aunt and Uncle have taken care of his sister, Sakura. This is where the most important relationship in the film is introduced. Torajiro doesn’t mope around about being heartbroken for ninety-one. That doesn’t even come up until the very end of the film. Instead, it’s sort of he and his sister getting to know each other better.

The film does take quite awhile to get into a flow. Torajiro is annoying at first then unlikable. Thankfully, the film is able to get out of it’s rough patch even with the excessive amount of slapstick humor holding it down. It’s probably the point when Hiroshi is introduced that he begins to at least be somewhat likable. At the same time, this is when Sakura becomes slightly less of a factor. Her friendship with Torajiro never gets past the wacky antics he performs in the first act. The “heartbreak” story starts to kick in and the brother-sister relationship starts to fade away; the two overlap at the wedding reception.

Speaking of which, Sakura and Hiroshi’s wedding is probably one of the more memorable sequences I’ve seen in a long time. I’m not sure if this means I completely loved it or if I completely hated it. It’s just memorable. One of the more realistic receptions I’ve ever seen depicted in film. Yamada carefully tip-toes his way along a line of melodrama enough so that it feels real but isn’t subdued to pointlessness. Hiroshi’s fathers give a speech that does feel a bit too theatrical but Torajiro’s response (providing a hug amidst awkward silence) saves it. It’s one of those poignant, elusive moments in the film that propels it beyond a cute drama.

Yamada had not developed anything aesthetically unique at this point. At times, this feels almost a bit on the conventional side. Yamada occasionally strikes visual gold (look at the saturation in the picture below) but his style lacks defiance. This is a very performance-driven film, though, and doesn’t really call for any technical virtuosity. Actually, it’s probably better the visuals are so 70s (this was made in ’69) as it directs the audience’s focus towards the important stuff, i.e Torajiro himself. Even as an old salesman, he’s easy to relate to, that is, as long as you don’t judge him while he’s intoxicated.