Saturday, May 28, 2011

REVIEW: My Back Pages

マイ・バック・ページ (Mai bakku peji)

Released: 2011

Nobuhiro Yamashita

Ken'ichi Matsuyama
Satoshi Tsumabuki
Hanae Kan
Tomokazu Miura
Aoi Nakamura

Ruinning time: 141 mins.

Reviewed by Nicholas Vroman

“My Back Page,” Nobuhiro Yamashita’s part thriller and part paean to the radical student movement of the late 60s/early70s in Japan, is a smart and heartfelt study of the failures, broken dreams and the not-so-noble motivations of a generation prone to reification. A certain zeitgeist seems to be hitting the Japanese screens over the least few years where exploration of this turning point in 20th century history is open game for re-examination. Koji Wakamatsu, who lived through the time, broke through the wall with his incisive and unsentimental portrayal of radicals in “United Red Army.” Last year’s “Norwegian Wood” used images of billy club-bearing, helmeted student radicals as a backdrop for an otherwise sentimental love story that could have happened at any time in history.

“Norwegian Wood” featured rising star Kenichi Matsuyama as the hapless and non-committal main character, Toru. Though he gave the role all his might, the decidedly flat character had no room to move, dramatically or emotionally. In “My Back Page,” Matsuken (as he’s known to his fans) gets a chance to dig deep into the heart and mind of Umeyama, a radical wannabe. Playing off Satoshi Tsumabaki’s naïve young reporter, Sawada, the parrying and thrusting of their relationship drives the otherwise downbeat tale with a certain energy and complexity that makes “My Back Page” an enthralling film.

Base on a memoir of by critic Saburo Kawamoto, “My Back Page,” chronicles the heady events that began around the fall of Yasuda Auditorium in January 1969. Referenced, though never seen in the film, the police ouster of students occupying the Tokyo University building is generally recognized as the beginning of the end of the radical student movement in Japan. It’s from this turning point in the radical movement that the energy began to dissipate or become calcified, inspiring hard-line leftist groups to become direct action cults.

“My Back Page” opens with young Sawada and a couple of buddies as inept hippy entrepreneurs, trying to sell pet bunnies. Sawada makes a mistake of storing a box of rabbits behind a building where they accidently expire. The head of this trio, Tamotsu gets beaten up by his yakuza suppliers and bids goodbye to Sawada and the aptly named Kuristo (Christ). This simple and seemingly throwaway beginning sets the themes that will be explored throughout the move. Actions – or inactions – that cause harm and death are given a simple metaphor with the dead rabbits. Sawada is spared from the results of his actions and embarks on his career of being a reporter. Responsibility evades him throughout the film.

Cut to sometime in the future, Sawada lands a job at the Touto media empire, working for the weekly gossip rag, rather than the primo job with the news team. He has just written a sentimental and sloppy story about the homeless and is rightfully taken down several pegs by his bosses. Grabbing onto the coattails of a more savvy and seasoned reporter, Nakahira (Kanji Furutachi) he gets an object lesson in creating a news story - delivering a wanted radical organizer to a demonstration where an attempted arrest and escape make the headlines. Nakahira, though, gets the byline.

Meeting young radical, Umeyama, gives Sawada the idea that Umeyama may be the man that will give him the story that will make him noticed. Umeyama also see a similar end in the naïve reporter that he can use for his own ends.

Umeyama is introduced at a leftist student meeting where he shouts down his main rival and creates a new radical cell. Though only having a handful of people he sets an unformed radical agenda with an idea of armed insurrection. Through a mix of manipulation, charisma and pure bull-headedness he manages to get his immediate peers and most importantly, Sawada, to believe in him. He moves his agenda toward a senseless murder that ultimately leads to his arrest. Deluded to the end, Umeyama gets his moment in the spotlight, but to a misused and wasted end.

Both Sawada and Umeyama are portrayed as being idealists. Sawada identifies with the student movement and with his position in the media thinks he can help the cause. Umeyama believes in a new and better future, though the boy’s got some other problems. Sawada wants his scoop, his moment of fame being an important reporter. It’s noteworthy that Sawada is never shown writing, ever. Umeyama thinks he can have his moment in the spotlight, not only to salve his own ego, but to build his twisted idea of revolution. They work each other for their own ends. The idealism of whatever they may have believed in gets lost in their personal delusions.

Umeyama winds up in jail, an aberration in the history of radical struggle. Sawada, years later, has become a film critic. He never was a good reporter. Ducking into an izakaya, he accidently meets up with his old hippy pal, Tamotsu, now a bar owner and family man. His failures, lack of commitment and losses catch up with him in a flood of tears as he downs a beer. The screen cuts to white.

Even though flawed (Sawada) or manipulative and evil (Umeyama), under Yamashita’s assured direction makes them both ultimately empathetic. The cast of hardboiled newspapermen, career-smart cover girls and abused revolutionary enablers are also illuminated in a positive light. Details of 6 mat hideouts festooned with revolutionary banners and the pre-computer age newsroom (think “All the President’s Men”) are carefully detailed and evocative of times, not too long ago, past. And most importantly, the showing the desires and failures of the 60s and 70s, warts and all, may be a more fitting legacy to a mixed up and fascinating time.

Read more by Nicholas Vroman at his blog

No comments: