Saturday, March 19, 2011

TJSFF '11 REVIEW: Palm-of-the-Hand Stories

掌の小説 (Tenohira no shosetsu)

Released: 2009

Tsukasa Kishimoto
Nobuyuki Miyake
Takushi Tsubokawa
Yuya Takahashi

Running time: 80 mins.

Reviewed by Chris MaGee

Nobel Prize-winning author Yasunari Kawabata (1899-1972) wrote some of Japan's best known novels - "Snow Country", "The Old Capital", "Thousand Cranes", to name just three, but for me his literary genius shone through in a slim book of 70 short stories taken from throughout Kawabata's 50-year writing career titled "Palm-of-the-Hand Stories". There may be a few of you out there asking, "How can a book made up of 70 short stories be slim?" It's a fair question if you're used to reading short stories that clock in at the usual two dozen pages or so, but "Palm-of-the-Hand Stories" came by its title honestly. Kawabata elicits the shinkankakuha, or "new perceptions" that he so famously talked about, by paring down the narratives in his short stories so that none of them exceed more than four pages in length, in fact many of the tales in "Palm-of-the-Hand Stories" play out in little more than one page of text. It's the deceptively simple, densely packed, often stream of consciousness style that made "Palm-of-the-Hand Stories not only one of my favorite books of all time, but the favorite of many Japanese and international film-makers as well (just ask our friend and film-maker Edmund Yeo who has adapted some of these stories into his own award-winning short films). In 2009 a quartet of film-makers decided that they would take on the challenge of bringing these little literary gems to the big screen, but the four short films that make up "Palm-of-the-Hand Stories" only sometimes meet the level of surreal slight of hand that Kawabata brought to the page.

Tsukasa Kishimoto starts off the film strong with his interpretation of "The Unsmiling Man". The story chronicles the relationship between a writer and his consumptive wife, but does sop through memory and momentary reverie. Kishimoto captures this feeling perfectly by having his film jump around in an intuitive, non-linear fashion where one second the writer's wife is coughing up blood in the adjoining room and the next second she and the writer are dancing to a phonograph record, obviously in happier and healthier times. Our protagonist is obviously strained by his partner's illness, but he approaches it with as much good humour as he can muster. The wife goes even further, playing practical jokes on her husband using the Noh mask he has bought to inspire the story he is writing. It's smiling porcelain visage not only becomes a running gag, but a repeated reference to a death mask, one that wife will one day inevitably wear. Kishimoto blends this, as well as scenes where the writer plays swordfighting with a neighbourhood boy, and sexually loaded moments where the wife begs her husband to rub her cold legs, perfectly, setting the bar for the rest of the "Palm-of-the-Hand Stories" very high.

Luckily Nobuyuki Miyake keeps going strong with his adaptation of "Thank You", a story that many fans of Japanese film will recognize through its previous adaptation by Hiroshi Shimizu in his 1936 feature film "Mr. Thank You". Miyake's take on Kawabata's story is much darker and much more in keeping with the original. The story here shares the basic theme of Shimizu's film - a young girl is taken on the bus from their rural home to the city to sell the daughter into prostitution, and the bus driver, a handsome kind man who calls out "Arigato!" to people who make way for his bus, eases the gloom of the situation. Miyake goes where Shimizu dared not to though. In his "Thank You" we see the young girl sitting silently in her seat behind the driver as he calls out "Arigato!", but we also see her many years after, grown and a seasoned professional working in a brothel who uses memories of that trip (as well as an upcoming marriage which may or may not be real) to help her cope with sleeping with strangers for hours and days on end. The sadness in "Thank You" is palpable, but like the young prostitute's memories Miyake brings enough gorgeous imagery to the tale to transform the tragedy of this woman's life into a classic example of Japanese mono no aware, or the bittersweet nature of life.

With these two episodes of the film being so strong it's a little disappointing that the latter half of "Palm-of-the-Hand Stories" doesn't hold up as well. Takushi Tsubokawa adapts "Japanese Anna" next and he brings his usual obsession with the early days of Japanese motion pictures and jazz and klezmer music to bare on its story of a Japanese man who has his wallet stolen by a beautiful Russian girl. The man follows her to a ryokan, takes the next room to hers and slowly builds a fantasy world around her. I've liked Tsubokawa's previous two feature films, "Clouds of Yesterday" and "Aria", but here I felt that the silent films aspect and the musical number at the end of the film (Tsubokawa plays in a wonderful jazz band by day) seemed a little tacked on. The way he mixes the protagonists fantasies surrounding the girl and the reality of his life using faux silent film footage works very well at times, but as this ends up being the longest of the episodes in "Palm-of-the-Hand Stroies" its 27-minute running time seems like it could have used a bit of a trim. It's also hard to believe that this man has become so obsessed with this Russian girl when the actress portraying her is so lacking in screen charisma.

Very sadly, the last episode in the film is its weakest, and I say this with particular regret as it is an adaptation of one of my favorite stories from the original book. Yuya Takahashi brings us "Immortality", the story of an old man who visits an old sakura tree with the ghost of an old girlfriend to meet his final end. The original story is a masterwork of fiction with Kawabata never letting us know exactly what is happening until exactly when he wants us to. For all we know this is just the story of a grandfather taking a walk with his granddaughter... that is until she passes through objects and their conversation turns to death. The elderly man in Takahashi's "Immortality" is shown wandering through the other three episodes that make up the film and by the time we see him tottering in t6his last ten-minute segment we know that he doesn't have long for this world. Had he been left out until the end and the mood of Takahashi's direction wasn't so nostalgic and otherworldly this could have been the strongest film of the bunch. Instead it just feels maudlin, and even the gorgeous sakura tree they found as a locale and the wonderful music used to back up the cation can save it. It's too bad because if "Palm-of-the-Hand Stories" had just been three episodes - Kishimoto's, Miyake's and Tsubokawa's (the latter with a bit of an edit and casting change) this could have been an adaptation that nearly reached the heights of its source material.


Anonymous said...

Hi, Chris. I'm so jealous of your chance to see this film in your country. T.T
I want to see the film because of Seiji Fukushi played as the japanese man in "Japanese Anna", and I agree with you: the girl isn't that gorgeous to be obsessed. Hm...
I wonder if there is any other good omnibus/anthology film from Japan (other than this and Kitano's Dolls). Can you recommend me? Thanks a lot.
Btw, love your blog. Keep it up.

Ps: Sorry for my bad english. :)

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