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Friday, Nov. 4, 2005
Golden days on silver screen
The past is political, as historians are fond of saying -- and filmmakers are often intent on proving. The 1950s -- the Last Good Decade of the American right -- long ago lost its nostalgic glow for that notorious lefty bastion, Hollywood, whose collective memory of the era is now of its stultifying conformity ("Pleasantville'), stifling of women ("Mona Lisa Smile") and pervasive racism, even in supposedly enlightened upper-middle-class circles ("Far From Heaven").
The past is also personal, however, and when I look back on 1958, it is with the memories of a 9-year-old kid in an Ohio factory town whose world, including endless hours of unstructured time, is now as vanished as Huck Finn's.
That era is equally distant for Japanese filmmakers, especially those raised in post-1950s affluence, but their take on it tends to be less critical, more affectionate than Hollywood's, even if they do not, like Pat Buchanan and George Will, think of it as a summit from which the culture has since sadly fallen.
Based on a Ryohei Saigan manga that first appeared in 1973 and is still running in Weekly Big Comic Original, Takashi Yamazaki's film "Always -- 3-Chome no Yuhi (Always -- Sunset on Third Street)" is clearly on the apolitical, personal side of the ledger. Yamazaki, a digital-effects specialist who directed the sci-fi movies "Juvenile " (2000) and "Returner" (2002), differs from other, older mainstream memory merchants in his evocation of downtown Tokyo, circa 1958.
This is not the usual studio set, with the occasional period car rumbling through, but a total urban environment, painstakingly re-created down to the last rusty store sign and well-thumbed manga. In one of the more stunning scenes, what looks to be a crane shot shows us the entire length of a busy street, filled with period cars, streetcars, shops and people, as well as one character pursuing another. It stuck me as a composite of fanatically detailed set decoration, state-of the-art CG effects and carefully restored period footage, but in my one viewing I could not tell exactly where one element began and another ended. Also, "Always" seems to have been filmed using a 1950s color process like Tohoscope (a local version of Eastmancolor) with its soft, inherently nostalgic glow.
This reconstruction goes beyond the usual look of Japanese period dramas -- everything and everyone looking brighter and spiffier than real life -- to a hyper-realism that verges on the uncanny. The story may be populated by types and told in cliches -- but Yamazaki and his team succeed in transporting us back to a Japan that is a living memory to many in the audience, when urban dwellers still lived in real neighborhoods, television was the latest electronic marvel -- and the economy was about to soar skyward, just like Tokyo Tower itself.
The film's 3-Chome (Third Street) is within spitting distance of the tower -- which means that it is fabulously expensive real estate today, but its residents are mostly good working-class folks, like the tall, bluff Norifumi Suzuki (Shinichi Tsutsumi), who runs a small auto body shop, and his petite, perky wife Tomoe (Hiroko Yakushimaru), who has her hands full with their rambunctious son, Ippei. A new addition to this happy household is Mutsuko (Maki Horikita), nicknamed "Roku," a fresh-faced country girl from Aomori, who has come to the big city expecting to work at a big company named "Suzuki Auto" -- and barely hides her disappointment when she discovers it to be a glorified garage.
Across the street is the flyblown candy store run by Hirofumi's childhood pal Ryunosuke Chagawa (Hidetaka Yoshioka), a scruffy failed novelist, now reduced to writing stories for kid's magazines. Ryunosuke frequents a small bar run by the beauteous, worldly wise Hiromi (Koyuki), for whom he carries a hopeless flame.
As the film begins, Hiromi finds herself stuck by a so-called friend with a ragamuffin boy, Junnosuke, whose parents have gone missing. She promptly palms him off to Ryunosuke, who complains mightily about the imposition. ("You're nothing but a stranger to me" he tells the boy at every opportunity.)
There are no secrets on Third Street and, despite Ryunosuke's complaint, no strangers, either. Even Ryunosuke, who today would probably be locked alone in a room with his computer, has a place in the neighborhood scheme of things, as do Junnosuke and Ippei, who would now be commuting between their juku (cram school) and their game consoles, and Roku, whose present-day equivalents are Third World women scratching out furtive livings in the underworld economy.
All is not sweetness and light in this best of all possible Japanese worlds, however. Saying she has been discarded by her family, Roku tearfully rejects the Suzuki's offer of a trip home for New Year's. Meanwhile, Ryunosuke's love for Hiromi goes achingly unfulfilled, while Junnosuke's ties to Ryunosuke -- strengthened when the boy discovers that his guardian is also a famous (to him) writer -- are suddenly threatened from an unexpected source.
These and other plot gears are familiar from many a melodrama (the one involving the abandoned boy has a lineage going back to Dickens), but mesh smoothly, if loudly, enough. The performances of the two lead boys are charmingly naturalistic, and of the adults, half jokey, half serious in approved TV-drama style. Koyuki, Tom Cruise's demure love interest in "The Last Samurai," excels as the ex-bar girl Hiromi, whose weary shrug and sly, sexy grin would have done Dietrich proud.
The world of her film, though, is a golden field of dreams -- a nice place to visit, but nobody ever really lived there