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Always—Sunset on Third Street: the first television set Always—Sunset on Third Street: the first television set

The best of the bunch is the two-hanky (idiomatic Japanese for mildly weepy) Always—Sunset on Third Street (director Takashi Yamakazi), a meticulously crafted, nostalgic recreation of the Tokyo of 1958 based on a popular comic strip set in in the old blue-collar residential area of Yuhi and winner of 12 Japanese Academy awards in 2006 including Best Film, Best Actor, Best Screenplay and Best Cinematography. The film’s narrative is framed by the building of the Eiffel Tower-like Tokyo Tower, glimpsed here and there from a distance through the gaps between humble, mostly timber suburban houses and at the end of tram-tracked main streets as it grows to completion and an almost happy end for at least some of the characters. The tower represents an emerging spirit of optimism after the depredations forced by defeat in World War II.

There are small signs of improvement—the refrigerator replaces the icebox and the first television on the block attracts a multitude of ecstatic house guests (until a fault develops and an eager helper disastrously dismantles the set) and there’s very full-on Christmas gift-giving. The film’s sense of community, quite village like, is strong, as is its comedy if frequently undercut by darker narrative strands—the local doctor who chronically mourns his war-dead wife and daughter, and a woman whose father’s debts keep her in sexual bondage (“so feudal”, comments one of the locals).

The film centres on two households, one belonging to the family of a volatile car mechanic prone to verbally mistreating a string of young apprentices who leave him, this time a young girl from the countryside who feels she’s been effectively banished from her family. The other is a run-down general store neglected by a cranky, disinherited writer whose literary ambition cannot be achieved, writing secretly instead for boys’ manga, and stealing stories for them from an intelligent and creative orphan he is begrudgingly obliged to mind. The actors playing the mechanic and the writer give the film much of its strength—they are obtuse, funny, infuriating and at odds, while the other characters, the young boys excepted, are more generic. One of the best and most sustained scenes has the easily insulted mechanic erupting emotionally and physically through doors and walls in pursuit of his apprentice. It’s eventually a positive turning point for him and one that has a rightness about it amidst the calculated coincidences and resolutions elsewhere. The more detailed transformation of the writer into a loving foster parent is developed in the second part of the film, combining studied motivation and sentimentality in equal, but nonetheless convincing proportions. Always is doubtless a feel good fiction with limited historical vision, but the totality of that vision and its finest performances ring tearfully true. Always is showing only in Melbourne, and its sequel, Always 2, is showing only in Sydney.

Love and Honor (Melbourne only) completes the Yoji Yamada trilogy that includes The Hidden Blade and Twilight Samurai. It’s samurai drama of a quiet order—only one fight and a tellingly abject one at that. The young protagonist’s job is to taste his master’s food and in due course he is poisoned, resulting in blindness, a stubborn withdrawal from the world and a loss of moral perspective. The return to honour and perhaps love is carefully wrought in this modest period piece, which won Best Supporting Actor, Best Cinematography and Best Lighting at the 2007 Japanese Academy Awards,

I’ve long enjoyed those small scale films that offer glimpses into specialist aspects of Japanese urban and regional life, as with Shingo Matsubara’s chatty The Taste of Fish centred round the Tsukiji Fish Market, one of the world’s largest, and where the corporate protagonist recovers his sense of self. The Godzilla films might have been inadvertantly satirical but Minoru Kawasaki’s Monster X Strikes Back/Attack the G8 Summit is calculatedly so as the monster from outer space attacks the world reaping large scale political ill will and much damage to balsa wood and other constructions. One for the fans. A different kind of monstrosity is perpetrated in Suzuki Matsuo’s Welcome to the Quiet Room (showing in Sydney only) where a journalist is accidentally admitted to a psychiatric ward where she nonetheless manages to learn something about herself—but what a way to do it. Ultimately this is a ‘feel very bad but then in the end feel quite good’ kind of movie and not without interest.

While not the topflight of current Japanese cinema there’s something in the program for everyone, offering not a few insights into one of our key neighbours. Not least there’s a constant sense of the past bleeding into the present in ways both nourishing and limiting. RT

The 12th Japanese Film Festival, ACMI Cinemas, Nov 27-Dec 1; Greater Union, George Street, Sydney, Dec 2-9;

RealTime issue #87 Oct-Nov 2008 pg. 27

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