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Wednesday, Feb. 18, 2004
Going with the wind in Manchuria
Yasuo Furuhata is the most established of mainstream directors, consistently working with the Japanese film industry's biggest talents and budgets. He is also all but unknown abroad. His defenders might argue that he is "too Japanese" for foreigners to understand. His biggest recent hit, "Poppoya (Railroad Man)," glorified the workaholism of its station-master hero, played by rock-jawed icon Takakura Ken. Not the sort of subject to go over big in, say, France.
His detractors -- and I have been one -- would counter that his films are often glossy, old-fashioned wallows in sentimentality that find favor with the over-50 set, but are rightly scorned by anyone, foreign or no, who like films that earn their emotional payoffs, not extort them. That would include films by that other "too Japanese" director, Yasujiro Ozu.
There is also a nationalistic slant to Furuhata's films that may play locally, but doesn't travel well. Little wonder that he got his start as a director at Toei, that most rightward-leaning of studios. (It should be noted, though, that he was also a French-lit major at the University of Tokyo, so if he ever did get an invitation to Cannes, he could impress French journos with his knowledge of Moliere and Sartre.)
Furuhata's latest, "Akai Tsuki (Red Moon)," features TV drama diva Takako Tokiwa in a big, sweeping drama set in Manchuria at the end of World War II. The ambition, signaled by Akiyuki Asakawa's lush, Max Steiner-ish score, is to make nothing less than a Japanese "Gone With the Wind," with Tokiwa playing the Scarlett O'Hara role.
Cinematographer Taisaku Kimura may use digitally processed sepia shades in place of Ray Rennahan's gorgeous Technicolor for "GWTW," but "Akai Tsuki" has the stylistic and narrative fingerprints of the Victor Fleming classic all over it. There's even a scene of the family manse going up in flames that serves nicely as a substitute for the burning of Atlanta.
Based on a semiautobiographical novel by Rei Nakanishi, "Akai Tsuki" presents a narrow slice of life in wartime Manchuria. The atrocities perpetrated against the local population by the Japanese military and its civilian allies are more hinted at than shown. Instead, the focus is on the sufferings of the Japanese colonists after the Soviets invaded in August 1945 and made short work of the once-vaunted Kanto Army.
Furuhata, however, is less interested in wringing tears and waving the Hinomaru than in showing how war and its aftermath drive human beings to desperate extremes. Their choices, we see, aren't always pretty, let alone moral, but reflect truths with which Japanese of Furuhata's generation are intimately familiar.
Tokiwa plays Namiko, the wife of sake-maker Yutaro Morita (Teruyuki Kagawa), who goes from rags to riches to rags in the space of a decade, with the latter transition taking only a few nerve-shattering days. The film begins with the Russian invasion and the noisy arrival of a Kanto Army detachment at the Morita compound. There they seize Elena (Elena Zahalova), the Russian tutor of the family's children, and accuse her of being a spy. Himuro (Yusuke Iseya), an army intelligence officer, is given the task of executing her. He is about to slice her beautiful neck with a sword when . . . one of the film's several flashbacks begins.
Namiko, we learn, dutifully supported her husband in his business, while raising her eldest son to be a loyal subject of the Emperor. When he comes of military age, he goes marching off to war with nary a backward glance. But for all her wealth and status, Namiko feels frustrated, unsatisfied. Though a good man, Yutaro does not stir her in any deep way (think a shorter, mustachioed Ashley Wilkes). Instead she finds herself attracted to Himuro, who may be icy on the surface, but is brilliant, handsome and intriguingly amoral (think a thinner Rhett Butler, without the 'stache).
Then it all falls apart and Namiko flees to Harbin with her two younger children. Himuro has given her much needed assistance, but decided to stay behind. Osugi (Tomoyasu Hotei), a former lover and Kanto Army lieutenant colonel, still has feelings for her, but has gone off to meet the Russian Army -- and his fate. Meanwhile, Yutaro is in Harbin on business, at exactly the wrong moment.
Minus male assistance, Namiko discovers that she can do whatever it takes to survive. Not for her the comfort of despair or the lure of self-destruction. She is made of sterner stuff (though "I'll never be hungry again" is not one of her lines).
As Namiko, Tokiwa gives a gutsy performance refreshingly low on star ego. A classic Japanese beauty, with a porcelain complexion that has launched a thousand cosmetics ads, Tokiwa spends much of the film as a harried refugee with two young children, who has no money for clothes or time for the mirror in the morning.
She has, in fact, nothing but her character's iron will. There are no scenes of her looking helpless and distraught. Hardly any of her looking teary-eyed, period. It helps that Furuhata shot most of the film in the midst of a Manchurian winter, whose frigid cold concentrates the mind.
Don't look to "Akai Tsuki" for anguished breast-beating about the evils of Japanese imperialism. If anything it makes the conquest of Manchuria look like a glorious adventure that unfortunately came to a bad end. But we don't watch "Gone With the Wind" to gain insights into the horrors of slavery, do we?