Friday, March 14, 2008

REVIEW: My Sons - Yôji Yamada (1991)

Reviewed by Chris MaGee

Like many newbies at Shochiku during the 50’s and early 60’s Yôji Yamada did his stint as an assitant director under the defacto master of Japanese cinema Yasujiro Ozu, but like Shohei Imamura, who also apprenticed under Ozu, the young Yamada was critical of the master’s highly mannered style and often quaint take on Japanese society. That makes his career even that more ironic seeing that Yamada’s astoundingly popular 48 film Tora-san series not only kept Ozu’s home studio, Shochiku afloat during the cinematic doldrums of the 70’s and 80’s, and that some critics said that the adventures of the roaming vagabond were “Ozu-light”, much more user friendly gendai-geki films. I couldn’t really see that comparison with Tora-san, but I can absolutely see the comparison with Yamada’s 1991 Japanese Academy Award winner for best picture, “My Sons”.

Following Ozu’s lead of friction between different generations it tells the episodic story of Tetsuo Asano (Masatoshi Nagase), a young man aimlessly moving from job to job in Tokyo who one night gets a call from his father (Rentaro Mikuni) asking him to attend the ceremony marking the first anniversary of his mother’s death. Reluctantly returning home to Iwate Prefecture he must make peace with his tabacco farming father while Tetsuo’s more successful older brother and his wife try and decide who can take care of Dad now that he’s alone. The elder Asano doesn’t make the job easy though. He sees no reason to leave the family homestead, not for the cubicle-sized apartment of his elder son and certainly not for the rootless existence of his younger son. Tetsuo stays on for a few days after the ceremony to make sure the old man is okay, but even an afternoon out in the fields helping his father harvest the crops can sooth the rocky relations between father and son. It doesn’t look like matters will improve until Tetsuo returns to Tokyo and takes a job in a steel warehouse. During his daily deliveries to a factory he meets and falls in love with Seiko, a deaf mute worker. Maybe she will be the key to Tetsuo settling down and finally winning his father’s approval.

While a tad melodramatic at points I thought that “My Sons” was a very solidly told and moving family drama, but what really surprised me were the nods to the patented Ozu formula: the children who, out of a sense of duty, try and make arrangements for their elderly parent, the effect of the death of a parent on a family, the visit of Asano to Tokyo to stay with his oldest boy and his family and for a reunion with his old friends. Sound familiar? It should. They’re key plot points and themes from Ozu’s most famous film “Tokyo Story” as well as many other of his films. It was the lifting of some scenes and even dialogue from “Tokyo Story” that at times took me out of the story a bit. The moments when Asano’s children have all gone back to Tokyo and the woman next door mentions “It will be lonely now that they’re gone” and the scene of Asano and his old war buddies at a nomi-ya sipping sake and talking about their children took me right back to Ozu’s 1953 classic. This isn’t meant to diminish the film at all. As I said “My Sons” is a very simple, but affecting piece of work with very strong performances by Mikuni (The Burmese Harp, Vengeance is Mine) and Nagase who Yamada would use again in his amazing 2004 samurai drama “The Hidden Blade”. If you can track down a copy of “My Sons” I would recommend giving it a look.

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