The Yellow Handkerchief (1977)

1 07 2008

Not Yoji Yamada’s greatest film, but a solid effort none the less. It ends up becoming a bit too manipulative towards the end, and is then wrapped up by a completely “Hollywood tearjerker” conclusion. Still, Yamada’s personality is quite in tact with plenty of “silly” humor and carefully framed compositions. The first-half is actually akin to a slightly more conventional Japanese version of Two-Lane Blacktop but with a greater emotional potential. This eventually turns into something pretty sappy by the film’s end but it still manages to be captivating throughout its entire running time. Even though its handled in an ultimately far too romanticized way, it is a pretty fantastic film. This is the type of melodrama that Hollywood is suppose to be so great at making, but really isn’t.

The story starts with Kinya, who has recently upgraded his car. He’s a young adult and he’s single so naturally he uses his ride to ahem, look for companions. He offers a ride to a shy girl by the name of Akemi and she reluctantly accepts. From the get go, sexual tension is apparent, but things get a bit easier as the two become acquainted. They pick up Yusaku, a 30-something coal miner with a reserved personality. The story slowly begins to shift from the comedic hijinks of Kinya and Akemi to Yusaku’s mental drama. He’s hiding something about his past, which he either wants to forget or is trying to remember.

The aforementioned “shift” in focus from the lighter relationship woes between Kinya and Akemi to Yusaku’s past is a careful one, but perfectly shows just how great Yamada is at mixing comedy and drama. Never does the film sugarcoat the character’s emotions, nor does it every come off as misanthropic. Yamada, like Mikio Naruse before and Nobuhiro Yamashita after him, simply has an unteachable quality of just how to balance the silly with the serious. In this case, he may go overboard a couple of times, but even the goofiest of bits unfold in a subtle manner.

Ken Takakura is wonderful here, playing a role that seems like the cousin to his performance in Distant Cry from Spring. The film’s greatest scenes are easily the quick elliptical flashes that he shares with Chieko Baisho. These sequences are few and far between within the first hour, but Yamada eventually indulges in a prolonged montage towards the end filled with some wonderfully bittersweet moments. Eventually, the poignancy of the ellipses are traded in for mindless pull at your heartstrings tactics. If anything, such elements could shorten the gap between conventional commercial films and more personal, art films. But here, they just ruin what could have very well been Yamada’s shining cinematic moment. A lost opportunity, I suppose, but still a wonderful film.

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