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).
I have always thought that the word kushou [苦笑] means (by dictionary definition and popular usage):
To smile at something that is bitter to you and look bitter while you smile.
But over the years of having watched dozens of Japanese films, including nearly everything by Yasujiro Ozu [小津安二郎] (1903 – 1963), I am beginning to think that there is another kind of kushou. A more subtle kind perhaps. It is namely:
To smile at something that is bitter to you and not look bitter while you smile.
For some reason, I have only spotted that smile in Japanese films so far. You will know that smile instinctively once you have watched enough of them (whether they are directed by Ozu or not, for his influence is lasting and widespread). It is the Kodak smile that you usually only see in advertisements of toothpaste, shampoo, cosmetics or the like. If a shot of the smile were taken out of the context of the film, you might even be fooled into thinking that the smile was induced by joy. But that smile always appears in some tragic context.
Tokyo Story [東京物語] is a 1953 Japanese drama film directed by Yasujiro Ozu.
In spite of its relative obscurity in the West, domestically this film is classed as a masterpiece no less important than, say, Akira Kurosawa’s The Seven Samurai, and it has remained my No.1 film over many years. The title of the film has also been translated as Sun in the Last Days of the Shogunate and A Sun-Tribe Myth from the Bakumatsu Era. This film is a Fellini-esque tragicomic drama set in a brothel in Shinagawa in the last days of the Edo era. The main character is an anti-hero who sponges on the brothel. It is impossible to sum up the story in a sentence. Nothing much seems to have happened and yet a lot has happened – it is like a intriguing dream. Just about every frame in the film is poster quality – you can take a screencapture, enlarge it, print it out, hang it on a wall and it would make an unforgettable picture as it is.