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…).
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.