Musuko (1991)

13 06 2008

Another triumph from the great Yoji Yamada. In other words, nothing really new from him. Here we have a fleshed-out, sprawling, multi-character drama that will inevitably evoke of past Ozu films. It’s an impossible comparison to avoid for Yamada, not to mention for any other remotely “slow” modern director from East Asia. In this case, though, we have a particularly Ozuian setup carried out by a well-sized family. Towards the end, it becomes more obvious what characters are essentially the focus (the father and his younger son) but the supporting roles are just as competently realized. Those who expect something a bit more arty (i.e technically accomplished) may be a bit disappointed, but no doubt, this is a fantastic piece of filmmaking.

Tetsuo is invited back to his childhood home, by his father, for the one year anniversary of his mother’s death. He is reluctant to go because he’s never really earned his father’s approval. His college-educated brother, who is now a father of two, has always garnered the attention of the family. He goes anyway and is invited by a onslaught of concerns from family members. Tetsuo is asked to stay past the departure of the rest of his family, so he can look after his father for a couple of days. Instead, their feelings boil to the surface to the point that father essentially disowns him. Poised to become independent, Tetsuo takes up a job in a steel factory. Awkward at first, he quickly adapts to the blue-collar lifestyle and in the process, falls for a deaf-mute deskgirl.

When I refer to this as being less “arty” than one may anticipate, it is a criticism of Yamada’s cinematic world. His aesthetic isn’t necessarily austere or even contemplative, but it is very organized and precise with very few technical gimmicks. The technical is hardly his focus, though, or at least so it seems. Like his predecessors, his films are strictly character driven but unlike Naruse and Ozu, he downplays aesthetics to the point that his style is hardly even present. Again, this sounds like criticism but its not. Perhaps Yamada has always attempted to be stylish, but its never really noticeable and this is meant in the best possible way. Visual bland, but in a way that seems to, if anything, enhance the believability of all the characters. This is not the same as Ozu or Hou, who both represent a minimalistic type of cinema, but a less breathtaking but equally interesting way.

For about the tenth time, I want to mention that this is not at all a fault of the film, or Yamada’s skills in general. It is hard to articulate just how the visuals in his films “work” (in a sense) when they are rather unexciting. It’s a bit like intermediate formalism, I suppose, that seems to unintentionally stumble upon moments of unequaled poetry. If that makes sense (and it probably doesn’t) then its noteworthy because of the parallels with Yamada’s narratives. All of his films have a very specific type of poignancy and this is no exception. This, of course, comes from the ability to relate to the situations presented but also the undramatic fashion in which Yamada presents it. Easily one of the best Japanese films of the 1990s.

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2 responses

13 06 2008
Michael Kerpan

I think Yamada is a lot more visually artful, in a very low-key way, than most people seem to think. His films are impeccably shot (and framed — when one gets to see them in the right format). ;~}

And performances tend to be wonderful

The weakest link in many of the films tends to be the scores (but I don’t recall the one in this). But this is rarely more than the tiniest irritation.

13 06 2008
Jake Savage

Yeah, I tried to articulate my thoughts on the cinematography and probably failed. He does indeed capture very beautiful images. Perhaps I just mean that he lacks a technique that makes his images more noticeable. I really don’t know. What I do know is that this is a wonderful film.

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