Friday, August 22, 2008

REVIEW: A Last Note - Kaneto Shindo (1995)

Reviewed by Chris MaGee

All that Yoko Morimoto wants is to get away for a few days; get away from TV, films, the stage. The theatre troupe that the veteran actress runs can get along fine without her for ten days as she decompresses by indulging in what's become a summer ritual: a stay at her country estate, lounging, taking nature walks while her longtime maid Toyoko and her beautiful daughter Akemi take care of the cooking and cleaning. It's all that a widowed woman in her later years could ask for, but not this summer. As chronicled in Kaneto Shindo's 1995 film "A Last Note" this year Morimoto-san will have to contend with tearful reunions, sudden danger, long buried secrets and tragedy.

From the very first hour that Morimoto (played by real-life veteran actress Harokuo Sugimura) arrives at her picturesque estate the gossip between her and Toyoko (Nobuko Otowa) takes a dark turn. One day during the past year the long time gardener, for no apparent reason, built a coffin and hung himself to death. He gave no explanation other than placing a note scrawled on the back of a bargain flyer reading "It's over," and left it on the coffin lid next to a large, ostrich egg-sized stone that people surmised was to be used to hammer in the nails on his coffin. For a story peopled almost entirely with senior citizens it's a rather gloomy beginning, heavy with foreboding, but in actuality that's the last thing that "A Last Note" is.

Friendship, dedication and love can best sum up the heart of the 40th film by director Kaneto Shindo, best known in the West for such 60's classics as "The Naked Island" and "Onibaba". This is perfectly illustrated when Morimoto receives a phone call out of nowhere from Ushiguni, an old friend and a respected Noh actor. He is travelling with his wife, Tomie and asks to come by for a visit. Morimoto is thrilled. She has only fond memories of the time that she and Tomie spent acting together in the theatre, specifically in their run of Anton Chekov’s “The Seagull”, but she is crushed when Tomie and Ushiguni arrive. The brilliant actress and dear friend that she remembered has been lost in the haze of Alzheimer’s Disease and now must be led around like a child by her ever faithful husband. He’s given up working to care of Tomie and the two are now on a mini-pilgrimage through the countryside deciding whether it’s best to return home to Kyoto or to finally retire in their quaint hometown up in the mountains. Toyoko does her best to make the old couple comfortable while Morimoto tries to tease some lucid moments out of Tomie by running lines from “The Seagull”.

What follows is a summer vacation filled with adventure. An escaped convict briefly holds the friends hostage around the breakfast table before Tomie’s heroically disarms him followed by a hilarious reward ceremony thrown for her by the local constabulary. There’s the shocking revelation of Toyoko’s daughter’s true parentage followed by Akemi’s wedding to a local man in a ceremony complete with wooden phalluses and a conjugal hut that’s more James G. Frazer’s “Golden Bough” than modern Japan ; but “A Last Note” isn’t all about big brush strokes. The quiet moments, the friends sunning themselves on the balcony of the house after their evening bath or Tomie and Morimoto dancing to a waltz in an expensive restaurant, add just as much to this beautiful and bittersweet film.

It’s the story behind the scenes that also adds to the bittersweet nature of “A Last Note”. During its production Shindo’s wife Nobuko Otowa, who had been married to the director for nearly five decades and had acted in over 30 of his films, was diagnosed with terminal liver cancer. Ill throughout filming she died shortly after “A Last Note” wrapped.

“A Last Note” is the work of a master filmmaker. Shindo weaves a simple story with hardly a scrap of narrative clutter that honestly portrays the weariness, fears and wisdom of old age. Highly recommended.

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