Pieces of Memory
The obligation to remember, thereby enriching our present day through personalized representations of the past, informs much of master director Yôji Yamada’s filmography. The Little House (2014), which opened four years ago today in his native Japan, is an exquisite example of such connections: detailed family storytelling against a precipitous historical backdrop, exploring how everyday people leading quiet lives cope, care and console while the outside world shakes and shatters. Japan Times reviewer Mark Schilling reflected at the time: Born in 1931, Yamada not only lived through the film’s 1935-45 time frame [encompassing the country’s militaristic bent toward its triggering of the Pacific theater of World War II], but has a fine-tuned sense for everything from period decor to social mores. The story, like those of [revered director Yasujirô] Ozu films in similar bourgeois settings, is no nostalgic look back at simpler times, however. Instead, it is a tale of illicit adult love witnessed by a pure-hearted young housemaid — and recalled by her decades after the event. This flashback structure has become common in local films set in the tumultuous early decades of the Showa [Era spanning 1926-1989], which are quickly passing from living memory….Yamada, however, also uses this structure to tellingly illustrate how time’s passage softens the impact of emotions and deeds that once seemed life-changing – or rather, marriage-threatening. The film begins in the present, shortly following the death of Taki (Tora-san series regular Chieko Baisho), an elderly woman who had been writing reminiscences of her youth with the encouragement of her loving, if jokingly critical, great-nephew Takeshi (Satoshi Tsumabuki). The story soon shifts to 1935, when Taki (Haru Kuroki), now a bashful, apple-cheeked teenager, comes from snowy Yamagata Prefecture to work as a maid in Tokyo. After a year with a tart-tongued novelist (Isao Hashizume), she leaves for the titular ‘little house’ in the suburbs, where Masaki Hirai (Takataro Kataoka), a toy-company executive, lives with his wife Tokiko (Takako Matsu) and their 5-year-old son Kyoichi. Taki is taken with the Hirais, especially the outgoing, cultured and, for a woman of the era, blithely independent Tokiko. Then at a home New Year’s celebration, Tokiko meets Itakura (Hidetaka Yoshioka), a young designer at her husband’s company. Another immigrant from the Far North, Itakura is artistic to his fingertips – and uninterested in the other men’s talk of war and profits. He and Tokiko, who admires his talent for drawing and shares his passion for classical music, soon strike up a platonic friendship. Meanwhile, Taki is in the background approvingly observing the flowering of this relationship – she also likes the gentle-spirited Itakura. But as it deepens into passion, she becomes alarmed. Yamada has not made the conventional type of love-triangle melodrama. Instead, the film is centrally concerned with Taki and how this affair (if indeed it is an affair) impacts both her relationship with Tokiko and her later life. From a bumpkin who stands in fear and awe of her exquisitely kimonoed employer, Taki becomes a trusted confidante who can, when the situation demands it, speak the uncomfortable truth to her.” Gracefully subtle yet deceptively complex in feeling, this adaptation of an award-winning Nakajima Kyoko novel about a romantic secret uncovered after 60 years won the Silver Bear Best Actress Award for Kuroki’s marvelous performance as the young Taki. For Yamada, whose other treasured and award-laureled films The Yellow Handkerchief (1977) and The Twilight Samurai (2002) are available on Twilight Time Blu-rays, it was a project well suited to his life experience and cinematic training, as he discussed in this 2014 conversation with Gavin Blair of The Hollywood Reporter, accessible here: https://www.hollywoodreporter.com/news/berlin-yoji-yamada-how-war-678719, and he would continue to explore similar terrain in a follow-up memory piece, 2015’s Nagasaki: Memories of My Son. His 84th film is being finalized for release this coming May. Meanwhile, fans of elegant moviemaking craft can visit The Little House and the above-noted Yamada signature works on TT discs.