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Wednesday, Feb. 2, 2005
A new world in post-feudal times
National epics are not made for foreigners, not really. "Gone With the Wind" enraptured Americans for generations, but the film's evocation of an antebellum Southern paradise, where the men were gallant, the ladies lovely and the slaves mostly comic relief, didn't resonate as deeply with outlanders (including Yankees not raised on a steady Southern diet of Civil War "lost cause" nostalgia). Everyone, though, feels the rising heat between Vivian Leigh's Scarlett O'Hara and Clark Gable's Rhett Butler -- no translation needed.
Isao Yukisada's "Kita no Zero-nen (Year One in the North)" is such an epic, intended first and last for a domestic audience. It's not that its story of settlers in early Meiji Era Hokkaido is too culture-specific; in some ways, the film is a Japanese counterpart to all those Hollywood westerns about pioneers heading west.
In other ways, though, it's a big-scale, inward-looking celebration of Japaneseness that may leave outsiders feeling, well, left out. Or drawing comparisons with, not Hollywood pioneers like John Wayne and Ward Bond, who made it all look like a glorious adventure, but the real-life ones like the Pilgrims, who barely made it through their first New England winters.
Also, the appearance of Sayuri Yoshinaga as a long-suffering pioneer wife will stir happy memories for many older Japanese fans, who fondly remember her as a teen star for Nikkatsu, playing spunky heroines in film after film. Foreign non-fans may wonder why, in her 111th movie, this screen icon is playing the mother of a young girl and the object of passion for two stars many years her junior. Vanity? Perhaps, but I doubt that Sayurists, as her devoted fans are called, would like to see her as a gray-kimonoed granny. She is giving them what they want -- an eternally youthful Sayuri who is pure and desirable. (She is also exercising the sort of box-office clout rarely possessed by actresses over 40, of whatever nationality.)
Based on a true story, "Kita no Zero-nen" begins in 1871, when the new Meiji government, seeking to end a dispute between two rival clans, ordered 546 members of one, the Inada Clan of Awaji, to emigrate to Hokkaido. Though long a part of Japan, Hokkaido was then considered the end of the earth, a frigid, inhospitable land where the bear and the Ainu reigned.
Yet on the ship carrying the emigrants, optimism is in the air, despite the storms and cramped quarters. With centuries of feudal oppression ending, they are at last free to build new lives in a new world. When they first sight the Hokkaido coast, their excitement is familiar from the scenes in Hollywood films of immigrant ships arriving in New York harbor -- all that's missing is the Statue of Liberty.
The men of the clan have been carving a settlement out of the wilderness, led by Hideaki Komatsubara (Ken Watanabe) -- the ruggedly handsome husband of new arrival Shino (Sayuri Yoshinaga) and the father of her daughter, Tae. But they are of the samurai class and thus have little acquaintance with life on the land. Even their resident agricultural expert (Mitsuru Hieda) knows nothing about conditions in Hokkaido. The rice they plant dies; then a boat bringing more clan members sinks in a storm, drowning all aboard; as a crowning blow, the Meiji mandarins abolish the clans, and the yashiki (mansion) they built for their clan lord stays empty.
They now face a stark choice: either give up their little settlement or struggle on, without their samurai status. Hideaki opts for the latter and the others follow, but soon after he leaves for Sapporo on settlement business and does not return. Shino will have to make it on her own -- a daunting prospect, especially for a woman in Meiji Era Hokkaido.
One comparison is Scarlett O'Hara after the ruin of Tara, but Shino, though unused to poverty and toil, is no romantic dreamer, making ballgowns out of curtains. Instead she wears the impenetrable armor of samurai honor and pride. When a socially ambitious peddler (Teruyuki Kagawa) tries to force himself on her, she repels him indignantly, then, when he attempts rape, violently. When the others begin to gossip about her absent husband, she takes Tae to seek him, in the face of a blizzard. Better to die in the snow than be an object of pity and scorn. Fortunately, she finds help along the way, especially from a sensitive, brooding Ainu warrior (Etsushi Toyokawa) who admires her from afar. But basically it is her own grit that gets her through, until a fateful day years later.
Fresh from his triumph with the mega-hit romantic drama "Sekai no Chushin de Ai o Sakebu (Crying Out for Love in the Center of the World)," Yukisada directs this story with big, broad, consciously epic strokes; Michiru Oshima provides the requisite soaring score. Even Watanabe, so coiled and sly in "The Last Samurai," indulges in jaw-clenching and nostril-flaring, while Kagawa, the star of the Cannes-prize-winning "Devils on the Doorstep," all but twirls his mustachios as the film's villain supreme. Yoshinaga is more restrained than these two, but throws herself into her more physically demanding scenes with a gutsy abandon.
More importantly, she thoroughly exemplifies the triumph of the Japanese spirit (yamatodamashi) over not only the elements, but an even tougher foe: the Japanese bureaucratic and militaristic mind-set, as defined by the former samurai -- and the upstarts who feed on and come to dominate them. Intended as a chins-up, get-on-with-it message for a dispirited time, "Kita no Zero-nen" shows how the democratic ideal can penetrate the most feudal of communities. But it helps to be in a wilderness where gaudy uniforms and the mentality that goes with them look absurd. And it helps to have Yoshinaga -- Japan's own living Statue of Liberty -- on your side.