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Monday, Oct. 9, 2000


Return to a bygone golden age

Sayuri Yoshinaga is a phenomenon of Japanese -- indeed, world -- show business. An actress who is older than both American presidential candidates (George W. Bush by one year, Al Gore by three), who made her film debut as a button-cute teen in 1959, Yoshinaga is still eminently bankable as a romantic lead in an industry that routinely relegates its over-40 female stars to either the dust heap or perpetual motherhood.

Sayuri Yoshinaga and Tetsuya Watari in "Nagasaki Burabura-bushi"

There are parallels in traditional Japanese culture, such as the kabuki onnagata who play trilling ingenues into their dotage, but Yoshinaga is sui generis. Contemporary Shima Iwashita may equal Yoshinaga in the length of her filmography -- both have more than 100 films to their credit -- but Iwashita has survived by transforming herself into a take-no-crap diva, while Yoshinaga continues to embody, as she has for decades, the pure-hearted ideal of Japanese womanhood for her millions of fans, both male and female.

Though hardly an eternal virgin in the Setsuko Hara mold (she has filmed her share of passionate love scenes over the years), Yoshinaga still plays, in film after film, characters who personify, in their grace, modesty and self-sacrifice, traditional values, while projecting the spunk and vitality that made her such an appealing teen talent. And no one has ever worn the kimono better.

Yoshinaga, however, is not content to merely repeat the formulas that made her a screen icon, but continues to stretch herself as an actor, in ways both minor and major. In even routine vehicles, she seldom fails to give her all -- less like a domineering diva than the bright-eyed kid who scrambled to the top with drive, determination and sheer star wattage.

Her latest film, "Nagasaki Burabura-bushi" (which might be translated as "The Nagasaki Stroll About Song") is an unabashed attempt to please her core fan base. Theaters playing the film could post signs saying "No one under 50 admitted" and not lose a yen.

The setting is Nagasaki in the late Taisho and early Showa eras (i.e., the 1920s to the early 1930s) -- a time when Japan was still recognizably Japanese, but not yet a rigidly regimented police state, a time that still glows in the memories of many of Yoshinaga's fans. With its lush color photography (Tatsuo Suzuki) and sumptuous set designs (Yoshinobu Nishioka), "Nagasaki" is an example of Japanese movie craftsmanship at its finest.

Its gorgeously kimonoed geisha pouting and posing against a backdrop of ravishingly beautiful teahouses and temples may not be representative of the hardscrabble reality of the era, but it hardly matters. The film gives fans the old Nagasaki of their rosily colored imaginations -- a warming antidote to the glaring ugliness they so often see around them today. And, of course, Yoshinaga is in nearly every scene.

She plays Aihachi, a veteran of Maruyama -- a famous Nagasaki geisha quarter -- who was sold into the life as a young girl from an impoverished fishing village, but has since become a shamisen player of distinction and a woman of refinement, while never forgetting her humble beginnings. Though not wealthy, she gives freely of her earnings to poor children, especially a flower seller named Oyuki, who becomes her surrogate daughter.

She is no saint, however. When an arrogant young geisha (Reiko Takashima) from a rival quarter slights Aihachi and her colleagues in public, she replies tartly and a quarrel ensues between the two camps that threatens to escalate into all-out war, until an elegantly dressed and effortlessly charming man appears with a proposal for a contest of artistic talents, not sharpened hair pins.

This peacemaker is Tojiro Koga (Tetsuya Watari), a wealthy merchant, scholar and bon vivant, who is more devoted to researching Nagasaki popular culture, including that of its entertainment districts, than tending to his business. He volunteers as a judge for this contest and, despite the attentions of Aihachi's younger rivals, is attracted by her talent and not inconsiderable beauty.

He proposes that she join him in his quest to record Nagasaki folk songs before they are lost forever. Aihachi agrees and they set out together on their cultural rescue mission. In the process, they unearth a tune -- "Nagasaki Burabura-bushi" -- that Aihachi first heard as a young girl and has never forgotten. They also begin to fall in love, though Koga is married and quickly sliding into bankruptcy.

The years pass and, though they no longer meet, their affection for each other endures. Meanwhile, Aihachi's protege, Oyuki, is growing to young womanhood and polishing her skills at buyo (traditional Japanese dance). Then she falls ill with tuberculosis and Aihachi must raise money for her treatment. But how?

An old patron is of little help. Then a poet friend asked to record her favorite song, "Nagasaki Burabura-bushi." It becomes a hit and she uses the royalties to help Oyuki -- but her own troubles are far from over.

Based on a Naoki Prize novel by well-known songwriter Rei Nakanishi, "Nagasaki" is as busy and rambling in its narrative as an NHK morning drama, while offering up similarly heaping portions of conventional sentiment and melodrama. Its director, fittingly, is Yukio Fukamachi, a TV drama specialist making, at the age of 69, his feature film debut. But though hardly cutting-edge cinema, the film shows us, yet again, why Yoshinaga is still a major star in the fifth decade of her career. She can do it all, even, in one memorable scene, a yokozuna (sumo grand champion) ring-entering ceremony, which she performs to perfection, without a hint of absurdity. Could Meryl Streep say the same?

"Nagasaki Burabura-bushi" is playing at Marunouchi Toei and other theaters.

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