Naomi Kawase’s “True Mothers”: Japan’s Superb Entry for the Academy Award
March 10, 2021 § Leave a comment
This review contains plot spoilers
At the outset “True Mothers” seems almost a cliché: a happy couple with an adopted child get an unexpected jolt when his desperate birth mother suddenly appears. Fortunately, nothing is as it appears in Naomi Kawase’s masterful film, and the great pleasure of watching is its uncertainty. What begins as the story of a mother, father and five-year-old son keeps shifting, beginning with a red herring and ending on a surprisingly hopeful note.
In between, we see flashbacks of Satoko (Hiromi Nagasaku) and Kiyokazu (Arata Iura) Kurihara’s struggle with infertility (male, for a change) and their decision to adopt via an agency called Baby Baton, which they discover via a documentary. Impressed by the dedication of its founder, Shizue (Miyoko Asada), the Kuriharas apply, are accepted, and travel to the agency’s island headquarters to pick up their infant son. They also elect to meet his birth mother, a fourteen-year-old named Hikari (Aju Makita), who gives them a letter to read to the baby, called Asato .
Five years later Hikari telephones to demand the child’s return or, alternatively, hush money for not revealing the child’s adoption to his school. The Kuriharas call her bluff. According to Baby Baton’s rules, they have told Asato, his school and the neighbors that he is adopted, an important factor in a country with a long tradition of adopting the children of relatives, friends and colleagues, but little history of adopting the children of strangers. Meeting Hikari in person, the Kuriharas initially doubt her identity, since she barely resembles the middle schooler they briefly.
The film then shifts from Tokyo to Nara, and in flashback becomes Hikari’s story. At fourteen she falls in love with a schoolmate and conceives before the onset of menarche. (Here again there’s a surprise: the boy is kind, also in love, and heartbroken by the events.) By the time Hikari knows she’s pregnant it’s too late for an abortion and—having also seen the documentary–she elects adoption via Baby Baton.
Again and again “True Mothers” defies stereotypes and expectations. The island is tranquil and beautiful, Shizue is kind and motherly, and the other girls—young bar hostesses and sex workers impregnated by customers—are friendly. Hikari’s real troubles start when she returns home to Nara, where her narcissistic mother is concerned only for the family’s reputation and her daughter’s high school entry exams. Devoid of comfort and love, Hikari flees back to the island, discovers Asato’s adoption papers and makes her way to Tokyo. A school dropout and runaway, she ekes out a living near the high-rise apartment where her son is growing up. (Even here there’s a surprise: an employer who not only provides a place for her to live but looks out for her safety and well-being in a perilous time.)
Naomi Kawase, who directed and co-wrote the script with Izumi Takahashi and Mizuki Tsujimura based on Tsujimura’s novel, is the first Japanese woman director to reach the Oscars, an overdue honor for someone who won the Caméra d’Or at Cannes in 1997. Now, nearly thirty years into her filmmaking career, Kawase will direct the official film of the 2020 Tokyo Olympics. She’s a worthy successor to the great Kon Ichikawa, whose “Tokyo Olympiad” has been the gold standard for sports films since its release in 1965.
Kore-eda’s “Shoplifters”: What Was Lost in Translation
January 17, 2019 § 2 Comments
Longtime readers of Under the Hollywood Sign will remember my articles on Hirokazu Kore-eda’s previous films and the linguistic and cultural confusion they engendered. Some of the problems stemmed from a lack of understanding of Japanese culture by American critics, while others were caused by Kore-eda’s English subtitles.
An example of the latter occurs in “Nobody Knows,” where the criminally neglectful mother refers to herself in English subtitles as “Mother.” Although in Japan it’s standard to refer to oneself by familial title–mother, father, brother, sister–it isn’t in western languages. This led to one American critic using “chillingly” in describing the mother’s perfectly normal Japanese. Clearly, “Mother” should have been translated as “I.”
In light of this, I was relieved that “Shoplifters” has much better subtitles–at least until a key scene near the end. In it, Osamu Shibata, the head of a fictive family of societal throwaways says–according to the English subtitles–to Shota, the boy he has lovingly fathered, “From now on, I’m not your dad.”
Unfortunately, that’s not what he says in Japanese. As spoken by the actor Lily Franky, that pivotal line is: “So, I’ll go back to being your uncle.”
What difference does it make? For starters, what seems to be Shibata’s rejection of the boy he bestowed with his own first name (both Osama and Shibata being pseudonyms) is anything but. He desperately wants to remain a part of Shota’s life, as Kore-eda makes clear when Shibata subsequently runs after the bus Shota is riding. In fact, it is Shota who rejects Shibata by not looking back, though when he is out of sight the boy whispers, “Dad.”
At a reception before the recent Golden Globes Foreign Language Symposium, I broached the translation with a member of Kore-eda’s production team. She told me that they had discussed the line but decided not to translate it literally because they assumed the word uncle would confuse non-Japanese viewers. “He’s not really his uncle,” she said, and was surprised when I told her that avuncular relationships among people unrelated by blood are common in America and Europe, too.
“Shoplifters” is a masterpiece, and highly deserving of the Palme d’Or it won last year at Cannes. But Kore-eda, who speaks no English, needs a subtitler who understands cultural nuance as well as Japanese and English. There’s so much more to languages than words.
Remembering Shinobu Hashimoto, Japan’s Greatest Screenwriter–and the 20th Century’s
July 24, 2018 § Leave a comment
Few centenarians’ deaths come as a shock, but last Thursday’s announcement of Shinobu Hashimoto’s passing at 100 marked the end of an era. Hashimoto, whose blazing career with Akira Kurosawa began with “Rashomon” and continued through the decades with such classics as “Ikiru,” “Seven Samurai,” “Throne of Blood,” “The Bad Sleep Well,” and “Dodes’Ka-Den,” was a giant of cinema, and not just in Japan. His screenplays, whether written alone or in collaboration, have resonated throughout the world since 1950, their relevance unfaded by time and trends.
Though deservedly famous for the samurai films that brought fame to Kurosawa and Toshiro Mifune, his most important leading man, Hashimoto was equally renown for his contemporary films. Poverty, wartime devastation and existential dread were his themes, and he explored them with compassion and an unsparing eye for everyday cruelty. In “Ikiru,” my favorite film of all time (if I had to choose just one), Watanabe, the dying bureaucrat, not only finds life’s meaning in his remaining two months but does so in secret because his doctor has withheld his fatal diagnosis, as was the Japanese custom until recently. Watanabe’s only son treats him with disdain and his daughter-in-law regards him as a nuisance; neither will listen as he tries to break the news of his impending death. So Hashimoto, after granting the abstemious Watanabe a brief period of hedonism, sets him on a path to greatness: creating a park from an urban swampland, against almost insurmountable odds.
In “I Live in Fear,” Nakajima, a foundry owner, is so convinced of a coming nuclear war that he decides to move his family to the safe haven of Brazil. His family responds by having him declared incompetent. “Dodes’kad-den,” explores the daily lives of impoverished shantytown residents, including a boy who lives in a fantasy world in which he imagines himself a tram conductor.
Beyond his work with Kurosawa, Hashimoto wrote for other major directors of his time. His screenplays for “Summer Clouds” and “Whistle in My Heart” became two of Mikio Naruse’s best late-period films. “Harakiri,” for Masaki Kobayashi, is considered a masterpiece.
Still, it’s not necessary to have seen any of these films to know Hashimoto’s work well. “Seven Samurai” became “The Magnificent Seven;” “Ikiru” spawned “Breaking Bad;” “Hidden Fortress” inspired “Star Wars.” And even the least cinematically inclined are familiar with “Rashomon,” which has entered the English language as a word for conflicting yet true accounts. It’s hard to imagine life without these touchstones, all of which sprang from the pen of Shinobu Hashimoto, who survived World War II and tuberculosis to forge an unparalleled and unforgettable body of work.
My related articles:
“Isle of Dogs,” and “Mozart in the Jungle”: White Men Try to Explain Japan To Us
April 5, 2018 § 1 Comment
I have mixed feelings about “Isle of Dogs,” just as I do about other Wes Anderson films. On the one hand, it’s an homage to Japanese culture, particularly the films of Hayao Miyazaki and Akira Kurosawa. On the other, it’s a stereotype-laden tale that trots out (pun intended) every conceivable Japanese cliché: Cherry blossoms! Swords! Sushi! Megacities! Machine Politics! None of that offended me. What did were the references to World War II, particularly the atomic bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki;the post-apocalyptic Trash Island; the kamikaze-like plane of Atari, the “Little Aviator;” and the island’s deformed and wounded native dogs, survivors of laboratory experiments. For those who might have missed those references, Anderson helpfully provides an explosion with a mushroom cloud.
Anderson and his co-writer Roman Coppola apparently love Japan and have spent time there. But like countless other infatuated gaijin, they can’t resist the urge to explain Japanese culture, despite their shaky and superficial understanding of it. It’s a long tradition among white males that began with Lafcadio Hearn, an Irish-Cypriot journalist and wanderer. As the first westerner to write extensively on Japanese literature and culture, the non-fluent Hearn got so famous that he attained a professorship–in English literature, a subject he was also unqualified in–at Tokyo University in 1896.
These days, the explaining goes on less in books than in movies and television, but with the same mixed results. Roman Coppola does better in the current season of “Mozart in the Jungle,” which has several episodes set in Japan. There the orchestra performs on temple grounds and at a Tadao Ando-designed complex, among other picturesque locations. In other scenes, the Japanese love of classical music is depicted at a bar where patrons go to listen to recordings on high-end equipment. All of this culminates in a tea ceremony attended by the two leads (Gael Garcia Bernal and Lola Kirke) and conducted by a Japanese woman who is a master of the form. So far, so good, but then the characters drink the tea and find themselves in a Kurosawa-inspired bamboo forest, where they speak forbidden truths and achieve the enlightenment that they either were or were not seeking–I forget which because I’d already tuned out.
As in “Isle of Dogs,” the western fantasy of Japan collapses under its own weight in “Mozart in the Jungle,” and soon the musicians are back in New York where they belong. Japan clearly deserves better. It’s absurd that non-Japanese-speaking outsiders feel compelled to explain its complex culture to the world, but as long as there are white male Japanophiles, there will be attempts.
Women Transformed in Two Japanese Films, One Old, One New
June 29, 2017 § Leave a comment
“Funeral Parade of Roses,” by the late Toshio Matsumoto, premiered in Japan in 1969 but was not seen in the United States until 1970, probably because of its depictions of gay sex, drug use and violence. Matsumoto, who for most of his career was an academic and an experimental filmmaker, sets his story in the demimonde of Tokyo’s Shinjuku district. His characters are gangsters, filmmakers, student rioters and trans women. Most of the action takes place in a gay club whose gangster owner, Gonda (Yoshio Tsuchiya), is pitting Leda, the “mama” (Osamu Ogasawara), against a younger rival, Eddie (Peter), who aspires to succeed her as the hostess. As the lover of both Leda and Eddie, Gonda sets in motion a tragedy of Greek proportions.
“Funeral Parade of Roses” is at once an art film, a black comedy, a feature film, soft core porn, a film-within-a-film, a horror flick, a political commentary and a retelling of “Odeipus Rex”–and I’ve probably missed a few genres. It references Man Ray’s photographs and French Cinema, and is beautiful, messy and brilliant. The film was a major influence on Stanley Kubrick, who borrowed from it in “A Clockwork Orange” and “Eyes Wide Shut.” Despite being nearly fifty years old, “Funeral Parade of Roses” received a wildly enthusiastic reception from a mostly young audience at Cinefamily the night I saw it. It will be released on DVD and deserves its praise.
“Oh, Lucy” directed and co-written by Atsuko Hirayanagi, was well received at Cannes this year. The story of a 55-year-old single woman in Tokyo who unexpectedly changes her life, the film deals in Japanese themes (suicide by train, office ladies, yakuza) as well as universal ones (workplace politics, alienation and family relationships).
Setsuko (Shinobu Terajima) is a hoarder and office drone who witnesses a suicide off the tracks on her way home one evening–in fact, the man bids her goodbye before jumping. Soon afterwards, her niece Mika persuades Setsuko to buy a package of English lessons from her. Despite having no interest in learning English, Setsuko hands over the money and goes to the class which, oddly, is held in a yakuza establishment in Shinjuku.
“I’m a hugger,” says the American teacher, John (Josh Hartnett). He promptly wraps her in an embrace, christens her Lucy and makes her wear a blonde wig, all of which he claims will help her to learn English. Galvanized by his method, Lucy develops a crush on John as well as a tentative friendship with a fellow student, Tom (Koji Yakusho). When John abruptly disappears along with Mika, Lucy wastes no time in flying to Los Angeles to find him, accompanied by her estranged sister Ayako, Mika’s mother. Once they find John, they set out on a road trip to San Diego in search of Mika. There, liberated and unmoored, Lucy wreaks havoc on everyone around her. A black comedy that gets progressively darker before its hopeful ending, “Oh, Lucy” is as unpredictable and indelible as its heroine. It’s well worth seeing.
“Norwegian Wood”: Film Versus Novel
April 26, 2016 § Leave a comment
The standard rule about cinematic adaptations holds that good novels make bad movies and bad novels make good movies. This makes sense, since so much of what happens in good novels is confined to the characters’ minds, while most of what happens in bad ones happens outside them, and thus is entirely filmable. But this wisdom hasn’t really been true since two wonderful literary novels, The Remains of the Day and The English Patient, were made into excellent films. (As for the other part of the equation–bad novels making good movies–I don’t know, but then again I didn’t read Fifty Shades of Grey, or see the movie.)
Recently I read a great novel: Haruki Murakami’s Norwegian Wood. For those unfamiliar with his work, this is the book that made Murakami a literary superstar when it was published in Japan in 1987 and later, in translation, around the world. The fact that it’s a bildungsroman makes Norwegian Wood more accessible than Murakami’s other novels, which feature supernatural elements, historical delvings and post-modern puzzles. Though more layered than most mainstream fiction, the novel’s relatively straightforward storytelling and universal themes–love, loss and coming of age–explain its worldwide popularity.
The novel, which largely takes place between 1967 and 1969, follows Toru, a student at an elite university in Tokyo. At eighteen, Toru has left his hometown of Kobe for personal as well academic reasons: his best friend from high school, Kizuki, mysteriously committed suicide during their senior year, leaving a lingering sadness. In Tokyo, Toru is able to make a fresh start until he runs into Kizuki’s fragile girlfriend Naoko, who has moved there for similar reasons. Bound by their grief over Kizuki, Toru and Naoko begin spending Sundays together. In time they embark on a tentative romance, at which point Naoko abruptly withdraws from her college and disappears. Before he finds her, Toru meets Midori, a fellow student who is Naoko’s opposite: quirky, opinionated and sexually frank. They soon strike up a close friendship, but Toru, still in love with Naoko, resists Midori’s romantic overtures. In time he reunites temporarily with Naoko, who has exiled herself to a remote psychiatric facility after suffering a nervous breakdown. In the course of these events, Toru becomes the man he is meant to be: a caring friend and lover, an intellectual and a genuine adult.
Despite the deaths described in the novel–five, including three suicides–Norwegian Wood is less sad than you might expect. Between the ages of eighteen and twenty, Toru experiences his share of pleasures–literature, music (not just the Beatles song of the title but a wide range of classical, jazz and rock), food, drink and sex–quite a lot of sex, befitting a college student in a sexually liberated time. In some ways, the novel is a late 1960’s time capsule, containing all that was exciting about the era. (I was a child in Tokyo during those years and can attest to the novel’s veracity, not just the musical references but the radical student movement that roiled Toru’s university–they used to riot outside my house.)
Although there are some specifically Japanese elements–buying sake from vending machines, visiting love hotels, getting drunk legally in parks–most of “Norwegian Wood” could take place anywhere. Part of Murakami’s genius is creating characters who are very much like their American and European counterparts: they eat the same foods, listen to the same music and have the same frustrations and goals. This universality makes Norwegian Wood adaptable for the screen, which brings us to Tran Anh Hung’s 2012 film, “Norwegian Wood.”
Though a French-Vietnamese director who (presumably) isn’t fluent in Japanese would seem an unlikely choice to adapt a Japanese novel into a Japanese-language film, Tran (“The Scent of Green Papaya”) does a good job with “Norwegian Wood.” The cinematography is beautiful, the locations–among them Kobe, Toru and Murakami’s hometown, and Waseda, their alma mater–are perfect, and the acting is excellent. If Toru (Kenichi Matsuyama) is more handsome than Murakami describes, it’s an understandable exaggeration, and the script logically omits minor characters and back stories. Where Tran goes wrong is in ignoring the novel’s humor, not only Toru’s wry exposition but Midori’s hilariousness. Unlike the wispy, troubled Naoko, Midori* has her feet firmly planted on the ground. Her great obsessions are food and sex, and she enjoys wearing outrageously short skirts even at the hospital where her father is dying. Although it would have worked beautifully onscreen, Tran leaves out this exchange between Midori and her father’s surgeon:
Doctor: Wow, that’s some short skirt you’re wearing!
Midori: Nice, huh?
Doctor: What do you do on stairways?
Midori: Nothing special. I let it all hang out.
The nurse chuckled behind the doctor.
Doctor: Incredible. You ought to come and let us open your head one of these days to see what’s going on in there. Do me a favor and use the elevators while you’re in the hospital. I can’t afford to have any more patients.
Tran even makes Midori’s skirt is more modest than described–it’s short, but not indecently so. Choices like these make Midori’s outré moments–for example, her expressed desire to watch hard-core porn films with Toru–seem discordant, rather than a natural extension of her curiosity and free spiritedness. As a result, “Norwegian Wood” is much sadder than Murakami’s novel, and not to its advantage.
*A language note: Midori, which means green, is not only a modern name but a word that was not widely used before the late nineteenth century. Before then, blue (Aoi) was used for both blue and green, and green was considered a type of blue, not a separate color. Beyond representing life, Midori’s name provides a direct contrast with Naoko’s: Nao means upright or obedient, and the traditional feminine suffix ko means child. Through their names alone, Murakami makes clear that Naoko, “Obedient Child,” is Midori’s polar opposite.
Setsuko Hara, One of the World’s Great Actresses, Is Dead at 95
November 25, 2015 § Leave a comment
In 2008, I wrote this about Hara and her work.
“Like Father, Like Son”: What Was Lost In Translation, And What Wasn’t
February 8, 2014 § 2 Comments
Longtime readers of Under the Hollywood Sign might recall my 2010 post on cultural and linguistic misunderstandings in American reviews of Japanese films.
In it I talked about two films by Hirokazu Kore-eda, “Nobody Knows,” and “Still Walking,” both of which were significantly misinterpreted by American critics. Since then, Kore-eda has gotten better subtitling and some of the critics have gotten more savvy: in fact, Manohla Dargis got through her review of his latest film “Like Father, Like Son,” without making any gaffes.
“Like Father, Like Son,” which won the 2013 Jury Prize at Cannes, is the story of two boys switched at birth and given to two very different sets of parents. (There have been a number of baby-switching cases in Japan, including a particularly tragic one that was only just resolved, sixty years after the two newborns were given to the wrong parents.) The film’s protagonists are the Nonomiyas, a well-off Tokyo architect and his stay-at-home wife, whose adorable son Keita turns out to be biologically unrelated. (There’s a casting problem here, as Keita actually resembles Nonomiya more than his biological son does.) The Nonomiyas’ biological son Ryusei has been raised by the Sakais, an earthy working class couple who own an electrical supply shop in a provincial city and have two younger children. Informed of the DNA results when the boys are six, Nonomiya is not only determined to have Ryusei returned but to hold onto Keita. Despite his workaholic life and tepid interest in fatherhood, Nonomiya uses his means, education and sleek Tokyo apartment as justification for gaining a son and keeping the one he has raised. Before he broaches the subject with the Sakais, however, a period of visitations ensues, with Keita having boisterous fun with the Sakai family and Ryusei cooped up in the apartment with Mrs. Nonomiya, since his father is usually working.
What’s fascinating about the story is not so much the obvious lesson–that your child is the one you’ve raised, regardless of blood–but the class element, and this is what the critics mostly missed. Throughout much of the post-WWII era, Japan has prided itself on being a middle-class country, one in which the vast majority share a similar standard of living. No more: while Japan still lacks the yawning income and cultural divisions of the United States, its middle-class society is more ideal than reality at this juncture. In “Like Father, Like Son,” Kore-eda makes this point by not having any middle-class characters. The extremely upper-middle-class Nonomiya is horrified at the Sakais’ electrical shop, the back of which constitutes their home, a typical arrangement in Japan. For their part, the Sakais compare the Nonomiya’s highrise apartment to a hotel–and not in a good way. The two families even eat differently, a significant factor in a country whose cuisine is shared across class lines. The Nonomiyas welcome Ryusei with sukiyaki, an extravagantly expensive meal, while the Sakais feed Keita fried gyoza, a festive but cheap treat.
But the real cultural difference comes at bath time: Ryusei is explicitly instructed to bathe alone, while the Sakai père bathes with his two boys. Anthony Lane, who reviews for The New Yorker, has it backwards when he writes,”[Sakai] even takes baths with the children.” Japanese bathtubs are deep soaking tubs; all the washing and rinsing is done with buckets before entering. Small children can’t manage either part of the process on their own, hence the tradition of bathing en famille when the kids are young. (The only reason the entire Sakai family isn’t bathing at the same time is because their tub is too small.) Thus the unusual bathing custom in the film is the Nonomiyas’ solitary western-style one.
Lane goes on to refer to Nonomiya as a “middle-class professional,” but his fancy apartment building and black Lexus are well beyond the grasp of middle-class Japanese. Not only is he a high-earning architect at an impressive firm but, at forty, he has much of his lucrative career still ahead of him, whether or not he stays on the fast track.
Nevertheless, Lane wraps up the review by making an excellent point: that although Nonomiya is the main character, his wife and Mrs. Sakai are the ones who manage “the righting of elusive wrongs.” Lane then suggests a better title for the American remake, “Like Mother, Like Son.” Which would be great if the Japanese title were actually “Like Father, Like Son,” but “Soshite Chichi Ni Naru” translates “And I Become Your Dad,” a typically vague Japanese title. Dreamworks will probably call its version something else entirely, but whatever else is lost in translation I’m sure the class divisions will come through loud and clear.
Death of a Cinematic Genius: Nagisa Oshima, 1932-2013
January 15, 2013 § Leave a comment
Oshima’s films were featured in a major retrospective at the American Cinematheque in 2009, about which I wrote this piece:
During his fiery career, Oshima broke cultural and censorship barriers in Japan and abroad. The product of an affluent and aristocratic Kyoto family, he studied law and had every reason to protect the status quo, both politically and artistically. Yet he was heavily influenced by the Japanese student protests of the 1960s, and by leftist politics in general. As a filmmaker, he claimed, “My hatred for Japanese cinema includes absolutely all of it.” He meant it. Oshima had no use for the poetic films of Yasujiro Ozu (on which he got his start as an assistant). He also claimed the goal of his films was “to force the Japanese to look in the mirror.”
There are no equivalents to Oshima among younger Japanese filmmakers: there don’t have to be. In challenging censorship, artistic mores and the very basis of filmmaking, he blazed a trail that made their path smoother, though probably less memorable. RIP.
A link to the New York Times obituary: http://www.nytimes.com/2013/01/16/movies/nagisa-oshima-iconoclastic-filmmaker-dies-at-80.html?hp&_r=0
Setsuko Hara at 90: Ozu’s Muse, Forever Young
August 18, 2010 § Leave a comment
Setusuko Hara is an actress with no equivalent in western film. For 20 years after WWII, she defined contemporary femininity for Japanese audiences, first playing young, unmarried women, then wives, then mothers. In all her roles, she was a vital, central character, never an adjunct to a male star. (If only the same were true for female characters in American films!) So totemic is Hara’s place in Japanese cinema that she earned the moniker “The Eternal Virgin.” By refusing to grow old onscreen–she made her last movie at 46–and never marrying in real life, she further set herself apart, not only from other actors but societal norms.
Although Hara made 73 films in her 30-year career, she is best known for the twelve she made with three major post-war auteurs: Akira Kurosawa, Mikio Naruse and Yasujiro Ozu. A more detailed essay on her life and work can be found in my Pages.
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