[Film] Has Yoji Yamada reached an artistic plateau?

'The Twilight Samurai' (2002)

‘The Twilight Samurai’ (2002)

Once upon a time, I was having this “Yoji Yamada phase”. It began circa 2002 when I first saw The Twilight Samurai [たそがれ清兵衛] (2002) – which was to me an emotional hydrogen bomb. Afterwards I searched for everything I could find directed hitherto by Yamada-sensei  – the long-running Tora-san series (1969-1995), Kazoku (1970), The Yellow Handkerchief (1977), My Sons (1991), A Class to Remember (1993)… I was a Big Fan.

Out of the machinery of the risk-averse Japanese entertainment industry, there is on average (only) one film that is actually worth watching. In the subsequent years that Yamada-sensei releases a new movie, you can more or less count on him occupying that spot. The Hidden Blade [隠し剣 鬼の爪] (2004) was a strong follow-up to The Twilight Samurai, and while Love and Honour [武士の一分] (2006) was an all-around weaker production, it was still arguably the best of the batch in 2006 (with Memories of Matsuko [嫌われ松子の一生] by Tetsuya Nakashima [中島哲也] coming in as a close second).

After this spell with period dramas (the ‘Samurai Trilogy,’ as some critics call it), Yamada-sensei turns his attention again to the modern era and regularly churns out excellent work – Kabei in 2008, Otōto in 2010, Tokyo Kazoku in 2013, The Little House in 2014, and Nagasaki: Memories of My Son in 2015. And though these are somewhat short of my stringent definition of ‘Masterpiece with a M,’ they are still easily the best Japanese films in the respective years they come out. I like them all nonetheless. Perhaps from the point-of-view of investors, you can say that Yamada-sensei is a safe pair of hands who can turn production money into marketable fares with a stable quality of artistic merit.

Nagasaki: Memories of My Son [母と暮せば] was full of great promise, actually. Much of the screen time was devoted to characters talking about the bygone past with fondness and sadness – the same way ghosts in the Noh theatre appear on stage to tell their life stories with nostalgia. To me, words describing the past is always more evocative than visual images depicting the past – it leaves so much more to the imagination.

But somehow, something was missing.

The Twilight Samurai and The Hidden Blade were poignant stories in which an individual’s free will is pitched against a vast, faceless and corrupt bureaucracy. Somehow this theme of Man vs the System disappeared after around 2006, not only in the films of Yoji Yamada but across the board in the Japanese film industry. You may even say that there has not been any meaningful depiction of a corrupt state machinery until… (out of all things) Hideaki Anno’s Godzilla Resurgence this year (for those of you who wonder where Anno has been hiding…).

'What a Wonderful Family!' (2016)

‘What a Wonderful Family!’ (2016)

So that when I saw the poster for Yamada-sensei’s latest work What a Wonderful Family! [家族はつらいよ] (2016)… well, if it were not for the name of Yoji Yamada, I probably would have passed on this film. I watched it, and for the first time of my life actually lost interest halfway through a Yoji Yamada film.

Not that Japanese films are alone in becoming less creative, less thought-provoking and less sophisticated than they were 10 years ago (films these days are more conservative in outlook and conformist in message than they were in, say, the 1960s – which saw the release of titles such as Funeral Parade of Roses [薔薇の葬列] (1969) by Toshio Matsumoto [松本俊夫]) – I think the same could be said of Chinese cinema in the past decade (albeit for a set of very different reasons that should be addressed in a separate post).

It also occurred to me if it could be just me getting older and less readily enchanted by fiction. Let me explain what I mean. Talk to children and you will find that they always have a recent dream they can tell you about with great enthusiasm. Talk to adults and you will find that a significant portion of them claim that they do not really dream as much as they did when they were children. Could it be that dreams are (in part) dress rehearsals that stress-proof your actual reactions in life’s many and unpredictable conundrums – kind of like a Monte Carlo simulation which produces distributions of possible outcome values, against which you test yourself in your dreams in order to practise, practise and practise. Children dream a lot because they need a lot of practice, whereas adults dream less because they have outstripped the need. The same thing with fiction. Children love to hear the same story over and over again. Most adults think it a waste of time to read a book or watch a movie twice. Some even lead lives that are stranger than fiction, and therefore find fiction boring. Could it be that fiction is also a kind of Monte Carlo simulation, which one’s brain also crave less and less of as one gains experience in life?

Has Yamada-sensei changed, or have I changed? There is no easy answer for that and perhaps it is a little bit of both.




6 thoughts on “[Film] Has Yoji Yamada reached an artistic plateau?

  1. This is slightly unrelated, but I did not know about Tokyo Kazoku. Of course, I have seen the original. I look forward to watching that, I’m interesting to see how it has been made.
    I’m not really into the Samurai genre so I can’t say much about mr. Yamada’s previous works and his evolution, even though I find that the “Man vs System” theme being one of my favourite in general.
    One movie that is one of my all-time favourites is “Himizu” by Shion Sono (by the way, I don’t really understand why the “h” is usually not kept when his name is translated). It’s not really Man vs System movie and more a “generational-angst” one but, in a different way, I think that it does touch that theme too.
    I don’t even like his movies much in general, but that one stood to me.

  2. “To me, words describing the past is always more evocative than visual images depicting the past – it leaves so much more to the imagination.”
    What a nice poignant summary. I totally agree. I’ve had arguments over me disliking making and looking at snapshots of whatever and why I’d much rather think back on it or talk about it then to actually just look at the pictures. Facing the pictures usually is akin to facing the result of an exam, of which I already know, it went bad. It almost always comes with a sort of disillusionment, because my memory never quite aligns to those images, in neither postive or negative direction. Actually images don’t even match up with the perception of the present right when you take it. I suppose I probably don’t like these sorts of “objective perceptions”. (Although there are some people with the skill to document their proper personal view onto a visual image while also resonating with me. But that is already the realm of art already and it’s so seldom with private amateur photography that it’s practically almost non-existant.)

    Also quite the interesting analogy of putting dreams alongside a Monte Carlo simulation. But to me dreams is more like dissecting the past and analyse it than really a simulation for the future. But your idea is included, too, just to a lesser degree in the “what if xyz had happened instead” mostly.
    I am on the lucky side of still dreaming comparably a lot and also even being able to remember a lot of fragments of these dreams. At least in my case through, those dreams rather occur, when a proper stimuli was given. That can even be one phrase or frame or music piece of a not so good random show, which is one reason, why I still also sit through shows I don’t really find very interesting. As long one interesting aspect sorts of sticks, the dream to come are quite engaging. (Well, unless it winds up being a dream about being a half-brainless half blind zombie wandering a dystopia in ruins…) But I think the meanest dreams are still the dreams of “me” watching something like a trailer or dramatic climax scenes for something I did not watch the full thing or forgot most of it afterwards. I always think, “I’d like to see it in full!”. (Usually my mind keeps spinning around, that context the scne might have had. Very amusing time killer, too.) Very intriguing also when I am reading foreign languages in my dreams. I only have been dreaming how I was fluently reading in Latin when I woke up I still could retain an image of a page of the book, but within 5 seconds only a vague idea of the content’s concept was left and within further 5 seconds any elaborate detail of the dream was gone. Now I remember vaguely what font was used for the book page, and that “I” was a rare piece of secretely highly educated female clad in haute couture in probably the late middle age/early renaissance, but no more.
    As for stress rehersing, I think I have a lot of those, too, but those dreams are usually the last interesting ones and the ones I forget or discard immediately. They are usually lost within a second or even when they have been weird enough until the evening. I’d also better do this, some of those are so realistically daily life they pose danger as to that they may become undistinguishable from a “real” memory. And some are pretty gruesome. (Like having a rabbit family and then have all of them be dead one morning.)
    I sometimes do wonder if this is supposed to mean, I am still a child. There have been quite a few who expressed envy for my ability to retain dreams in my memory, but then I only do when they were somehow outstanding and I am just decent in remembering uncommon things. There isn’t much more to it for me, but them having dreams in the first place seems to be rare as well.

    Have you ever had lucid dreams? I have had them three times in my life and it was pretty awesome. (And I ended up ending all of them pretty fast by an attempt to fly and get smashed against a wall to death or at least loss of consciousness…)

    I also wonder, why the dream theme doesn’t seem to really be much of a topic within film and anime, I also don’t hear much about fiction with this theme either. (Although dreams in prose doesn’t really work as well.) Which is a pity, because dream scapes have so much freedom over just about any possibility. Neither did Satoshi Kon’s Parika nor the really successful mainstream Inception manage to cause inspirared successors – there aren’t even trains of carbon copies despite their success. (Sometimes it makes me think I should just create my own film with the themes I like but never really find. If only I had the skills for that…)
    (And Inception seriously made me sorts of mad, even through it was all about dreams, it totally lacked the charm and fearfulness real dreams have, nor did it venture out to just pull off anything completely out of the ordinary. The only justification I have for that is that the dreams are artificially constructed into being just about as real as reality as to make the victim of the hoax not realize it being a dream. It’s like the purpose of the dream is not to be dreamish at all. It feels weird to me.)

    But aside that, I think your weariness of fiction sounds a bit more like an oversatiation. The same ideas, the same concepts, the same patterns get to repeat over and over and at some point they become simply boring, sometimes even when you revisit that which had intriduced you into the pattern/idead/concept first and it even crushes your fond memories you had of it back in the day.
    I have since moved on from being entertained by something what I would, for the lack of better words, call a sort of “primary purpose” of the fiction. Sometimes I simply enjoy an ever so little fragment that pops up here and there and some of those in turn are able to roll out a snowball for a nice train of thought or dream. Sometimes I marvel at just how nicer the same things is executed than it was previously and enjoy the crafty or witty construction work or the honest try on trying things out even just the tiniest bit diffrently. In that way I think I can enjoy rather average stuff to varying degrees as well.
    But of course “complete” things are much more impressive. But even if anything were impressive, I think, I may get oversatuated of those in time as well.

    As for this theme of Man vs the System – I don’t know about the film industry, but I have an impression, that the theme seems to pop up ever so much more often in Anime/Manga the last years. Some to a lesser degree, some more. Did it perhaps simply move over to the niche?
    Zankyou no Terror from 2014 is pretty clearly a 2-man against the system themes show and even the overly popular ongoing mainstream Attack on Titan is exactly just about that. In fact one does not even need to look much futher than One Piece.
    And even Shinsekai Yori’s Manga ended up making Saki a moral apostel against the system badmouthing its cruelty at any given moment. (Well, not that was the only glaringly gastlyness the manga had to offer…)

    • That’s a long essay on dreams in the form of a comment to a post about Yoji Yamada’s films… 😉

      The idea that children stress-test themselves against future challenges in real life by dreaming in sleep actually came from Robert Moss, who has written many books on customs and practices of dreaming from different cultures. I have read nearly all of his books. This idea actually reminds me of a manga by Setona Mizushiro called ‘After School Nightmare’ (it’s been translated into English), in which pupils at a high school go to a clinic after school to take a nap and dream. The pupils are reinforcing themselves against Life by dreaming but there is a twist to it in the end that makes you appreciate that there is actually some sort of grand cosmic scheme that they dream what they dream. I won’t spoil the story for you – the pace drags on a bit in the middle but the ending is very good.

      I was also bored with Inception – I kept fast-forwarding it until I was fast-forwarding it so much that there was really no point in watching it.

      A trick I recently discovered to overcome my impatience to average stuff is to watch it in another language that takes me effort to follow. I suppose the human brain is wired to make predictions based on pattern recognition – I get bored because the older I get, the better my brain is at recognising patterns. However, if I watch it in another language that takes up more brainpower to process, there is less RAM available for recognising patterns. Isn’t that genius? 🙂

  3. Probably even more queer, given tha I haven’t watched any of his movies yet. =P

    Now, that’s another name, I should take a note of. (Really, just why don’t you have read-book lists? It would a massively interesting to dig out interesting stuff. =P)
    I know a father and his two children keep him awake through the night, since they often wake up and cry. The guess goes, that they simply have nightmares and are afraid. They just entered the age of being able to articulate themselves. Unfortunately it seems none of them can’t remember any of the dreams contents. It would have been rather interesting to hear about them.

    No worries about spoilers, I have read “After School Nightmare” a few years ago already. I really liked the colour palette and atmosphere of the covers, I really liked the basic setup and I thought the resolution then was really a great idea. But I just disliked the two main characters just about as much and thought the poor third girl main character was so wasted on them and as you say, the pace dragged in the middle. (In favor of the main characters getting even more time indulging in that annoying romance.) And when the resolution came around, I sort of had stopped to even care as much as in the beginning. I also remember some online aquaintance from back them ranting massively over the Angel Beats! anime that came a bit later on. (It’s basic setup is like the weaker reverse of ASN; a bunch of teenagers get into a sort of limbo school setting word, which is like a temp world for the unluckily deceased and they have to come in terms with the drama so that they can be reborn.) It has had a couple of nice moments, but overall I felt like it was one huge massive trainwreck. Appearantly a visual novel game came about in all likelihood telling a more complete story.
    Which reminds me, I wanted to check out that other series of Mizushino’s you wrote about. I had checked out some older thing, on of these BLs and Black Rose Alice and though all of them were a sort of let down. (Especially the latter, it started so interestingly and went on to be just average for me and then it goes hiatus at something that only feels like an arc ending.)

    Inception appears to me like a culmation of some pretty images. And a lot of wasted potential.

    I discovered that method 10 years ago, in fact. =D
    That’s also the main reason I basically stopped most things in German when I came to about high school level. (Only that my English reading is about as fast as my German by now…) My issue with foreign languages is however, that the diffrence in speed is ever so much diffrent to the two of those. I once actually measured the time on several occations when reading a fiction book, just to fill this curiosity. 1 page German: 1 Minute. 1 Page English: 1-2.5 minutes depending on era, font and spelling. 1 page French: ~5 Minutes. 1 page Japanese: 5-11-17 minutes (And that’s just light novels or other juvenile books). 1 page Natsuhiko Kyogoku in English: 5-15 (a rare one to saviour; I still haven’t finish Summer of Ubume…) 1 paragraph Natsuhiko Kyogoku in Japanese: 30-40 Minutes. 1 paragraph Chinese: 10-150 Minutes (<— Trying to read hong long meng in Chinese at my level of skill was a trememdously bad idea.)
    Which is to say, when I go for Japanese/Chinese I am so slow I loose patience on a whole diffrent way. Another problem is, when I spent so much time of getting the first half of the sentence part, I may loose any patience until then already. (It's somewhat discouraging.) Or, when I manage to overcome that, I already get an idea, what the other half is, without actually having checked the vocabulary that I don't know. At that I get a bit bored and have a lack of attention to actually just get the missing vocabulary sink into my head already. I noticed this a lot when trying to read some light novels to avoid the slowpoke discouragement and when I tried reading Shinsekai Yori's ending. (I had watched it, then the last quarter was on air and at the penultimate episode I did not want to wait yet another week, so I just tried to read the ending.) I knew i did not know half of the page's vocabulary. But I still had so clear images in my head over just this little tit bit of what I was able to read, because the head just started deducing based on the knowledge from the anime. And I went on to be able to basically get the ending without being able to read over half of the Kanjis of the last 2 chapters…) And generally, just trying to read it, doesn't seem to help me build up the vocabulary anymore. I just transfer the information right into the pattern and then when I remember about the thing it's this abstract pattern/colour/meaning/picture that I remember, not the exact phrasing. This happens with anything, what is mostly sinking into my head is the concept, the notion, not the way it was described, which has also resulted into that I often have trouble to communicate my ideas for a lack of proper words.
    (Which is ever so much more true when I think about my dreams. I can talk about them in any language I may know, but I'd also know, inside the dream it more than often was not that language.)

    But! I found something else, than this to bridge over boredom. It's not fast forwarding but accelerating. (When using VLC Player for it, there isn't even a helium voice.) I started doing that with the boring low-speed lectures in university and one day I had the queer idea to do that with movies, animes and what not as well. By now the amount of how I do not speed up things is a proper indicator of how engaging a show actually turned out to be. Another indicator would be whether or not I get into a conflict over using it or not. (Watching Legend of the Galactic Heroes had my finger twitch more than a handfull. Speed up to be able to watch as much as possible before my eyes fall asleep because I was just so curious as to what happens next or not do it and enjoy it longer.)
    And I noticed – There seriously isn't much that is making so much use of its medium, that it really needs to be watched and enjoyed in 1x speed, which made those who are be even more gratifying. (Well, that caused for a notorious amount of arguments, because it's such an unorthodox thing to do.) But of course it's also an indicator of how tired I am, anything beyond 30% accelaration does need a bit of extra concentration.
    The only bad thing about that it is, it's impossible to accelerate BDs. The only proper Player with non-helium voice accelaration is the VLC Player and that one doesn't play BDs. And all the BD Players out there don't have a acceleration function implemented to accelerate the audio. With those the indicator goes as to how much I felt inclined to dust out or otherwise tidy up my table. (Or simply fall asleep.)
    Here's also the weird thinking (I never watch anything in Germany anymore, when I can help it) that even if I just half listen to it while tidying up, it's going to keep my languages warm, without any active effort. Well, all things said and done, I am probably just really lazy after all…

  4. This will probably completely move away from Yoji Yamada, but since it’s still about a dream, it probably fits in here most…

    Something rather peculiar happened today, I’ve had quite a captivating dream – starring you. Well sorts of. One of the two main character in there was clearly based on you and the whole theme of the dream was circling around beauty of a variety of sorts. It was also two-layered and at the end I was checking out your blog. Seems like the connection “anything related to beauty” -> Hana is pretty firmly rooted even in my subconsciousness.
    I’d be having a tough time to fill in the small things of that dream into words, but it made me think about something. Is there a sort of nice word for “beauty of depression” aesthetic already defined out there?
    What I’ve had in my dream had a lot of kyoukibi (well all of the three points your definition list in the other post), but it’s not really demonic or anything related to madness. Also included were streaks of isagiyoi, but that doesn’t quite grasp it as well.
    That got me to think, if this “beauty of depression” might not just be melancholy (which is an older word for depression) and quite a deal pops up in my head on that. It also seems to exist a concept of aethetic emotions and melancholy being part of it. But that also does not fit in my dream, because that other main chracter didn’t have any much of a really clearly outstanding… aura? of depression/melancholy.
    And I’m not really sure, if it fits in right into the notion of melancholy. (Of which I don’t even know, if it’s really a concept of beauty on its own to begin with. Does it perhaps rather count as a sickness and is thus part of kyoukibi?)

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