A case of cross-cultural fertilization that resulted in memorable filmmaking, The Yellow Handkerchief (1977, aka Shiawase no kiiroi hankachi) made a deep impact on Japanese moviegoers when it opened 40 years ago this month. Its origins were American. Former New York Post movie critic Lou Lumenick wrote in 2010: “It started as a column that the legendary Pete Hamill wrote for the Post in 1971 about just-released convict traveling on a bus to Fort Lauderdale with college kids. They become emotionally invested in his hoped-for reunion with his wife, who is to signal with a yellow handkerchief if she wants him back.” Hamill’s column was a fictionalized recreation of a story he had heard. He told Lumenick in 2010: “I began to see it as specifics of kids going to Fort Lauderdale and learning something. It had a classical shape; it was about going home, getting back to Penelope [as in Homer’s Odyssey]. The column was reprinted in The Reader’s Digest, including the Japanese edition, where it was read by a director who turned it into a terrific 1977 movie that got a very limited release in the United States.” Lumenick added: “Earlier, there had been a 10-minute film that ran on Black Omnibus, starring the host of this short-lived TV anthology series, James Earl Jones, as the convict. The most famous version of the story – which folklorists say existed orally as early as the 1950s and first appeared in print in a 1959 book about prison reform – was the song Tie a Yellow Ribbon, which sold 3-million copies for Tony Orlando and Dawn in 1973.”
These swirling cultural ingredients – an ancient saga of the wanderer making his way home to his one-time love, the 19th-century American practice of women wearing yellow ribbons to signal their devotion to their loved ones serving in the military, a 20th-century American journalist’s short story and a song penned and popularized in the heart of the Vietnam War era – catalyzed into the inspiration and architecture via which master Japanese director Yôji Yamada crafted a sweet-natured road movie about a shared cross-country car ride to Hokkaido involving a young man on the rebound from a romantic breakup, a young girl who wants to break away from her boring life and a mystery-shrouded older man they pick up en route. Yamada and co-screenwriter Yoshitaka Asama fashioned an appealingly funny, unfussily touching story about casting off the burden of past missteps and embracing an optimistic future that proved not only essentially Japanese but also eloquently universal. Casting of the central trio reflected the intersection of tradition and the new: Tetsuya Takeda as the would-be cowboy lothario at the wheel made his movie debut here and Kaori Momoi as his pick-up passenger taking a chance and standing her ground had six years worth of film credits; both continued on prolific acting careers thriving to this day in Japanese cinema and television. The story’s anchor is a celluloid legend with deep screen roots before and since: playing the stoic stranger whose past as a paroled murderer psychically haunts his uncertain future on an unsteady homeward journey, the singular Ken Takakura, an authentic man’s man of coiled action and brooding grace formed over 20 prior years of gangster and yakuza thrillers (including the Twilight Time release of 1975’s The Bullet Train), here reveals gentle, gruff, even playfully humorous inroads into the heart behind the hard shell. All three would be honored with acting laurels at the inaugural Japanese Film Academy Awards in 1978, as would the film, its director and screenwriters. Joining Yamada’s exquisite period tales The Twilight Samurai (2002) and The Little House (2014) on our label, the American-inspired, Japanese-horsepowered contemporary “folk tale” The Yellow Handkerchief flies its welcoming banner for a North American video debut November 14 on TT hi-def Blu-ray. Preorders open November 1.