Obayashi and Yamada Fêted in Tokyo

Nobuhiko Obayashi’s Labyrinth of Cinema (2019)

Over the weekend, we learned that Kaoru Yachigusa, the Japanese actress best known to western audiences for appearing alongside Toshiro Mifune in Hiroshi Inagaki’s Samurai Trilogy in the mid-1950s, has passed away at the age of eighty-eight. This year’s Tokyo International Film Festival will pay tribute to another great performer we lost earlier this year, Machiko Kyo. The selection of three films screening in the Japanese Classics program accentuates Kyo’s startling range: Akira Kurosawa’s Rashomon (1950), Teinosuke Kinugasa’s Gate of Hell (1953), Kenji Mizoguchi’s Street of Shame (1956). But TIFF’s thirty-second edition will also be a celebration of two singular directors, both in their eighties now but still going strong: Nobuhiko Obayashi, whose cult hit House (1977) would make for perfect late night viewing in the run-up to Halloween, and Yoji Yamada, whose series of films centering on the lovable traveling salesman Tora-san has been delighting audiences for half a century.

The world premiere of Tora-san, Wish You Were Here, the fiftieth film in the series, has just opened TIFF 2019 today, and according to Deborah Young in the Hollywood Reporter, it’s “an obvious local crowd-pleaser whose heart-felt charm will impress even those film-lovers who haven’t grown up with the franchise.” Kiyoshi Atsumi, who played Tora-san in forty-eight films, died in 1996, but he reappears here in flashbacks interwoven into a fresh narrative focusing on his nephew, Mitsuo Suwa (Hidetaka Yoshioka). “Though the boisterous ensemble acting and vintage colors of the archive scenes are distinctive, they are painlessly integrated into the modern story,” writes Young.

Working closely with Yamada, Shochiku, the major Japanese studio, is close to completing new 4K restorations of the entire series, and for New Yorkers eager to sample Tora-san’s appeal, Japan Society will screen Tora-san’s Runaway (1970) on Friday and Tora-san Meets His Lordship (1977) on December 6. When asked by Mark Schilling in the Japan Times why he wanted to revisit Tora-san now, Yamada replied, “Freedom is disappearing. Tora-san is a free man—the way he thinks and acts is free. So I feel now that I miss him and want to meet him, that it would be great if he were here. The Japanese of half a century ago were happier, everyone was full of energy. Now they aren’t. That’s why I made the film, to address the question of why these changes occurred.”

Profiling Obayashi for Variety, Schilling notes that many assumed that, after being diagnosed with stage-four terminal cancer, the director had made his last film in 2017 with Hanagatami, “a phantasmagoria of rapid cutting, perfervid acting and extravagant visuals,” as Schilling put it in the Japan Times that year. But Obayashi has returned to TIFF to see a special program dedicated to his work and to present his new film, Labyrinth of Cinema. In the new three-hour film, three young men wander into a theater and become transported to the battlefronts of the war movie they’re watching. When they find themselves in Hiroshima, they try to save a traveling theater company from the nuclear disaster they know is coming. “Shot and edited by Obayashi while he was receiving cancer treatment, the film has his characteristic blend of surreal whimsy and heartfelt emotion,” writes Schilling.

In the Hollywood Reporter, Obayashi tells Gavin J. Blair that he’s “been making personal films with funds earned by creating TV commercials for sixty years. Invited by the major studio Toho, despite being an outsider, I shot House, which allowed me to recognize that even an aesthetic literary work could be adapted to the commercial film genre.” TIFF programmer Kohei Ando tells Blair that “Obayashi’s films depict the shadows of loved ones, lost history, lost youth, memories and imaginary happy endings that people dream of, followed by the reality.”

TIFF 2019, with a competition overseen by jury president Zhang Ziyi, runs through November 5, and if you’re in Tokyo, Melalin Mahavongtrakul has written up a fine list of recommendations for the Bangkok Post.

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