Ahoy, squirts! Quint here to introduce Mr. Albert Lanier, master of all things Hawaiin, with his take on a film that played at the Hawaii International Film Festival called YEAR ONE (no, not BATMAN, but strangely enough Ken Watanabe is in it, too). Enjoy the review!
HIFF KICKS OFF UNOFFICIAL START TO 25TH YEAR WITH JAPANESE MELODRAMA
by Albert Lanier
The Hawaii International Film Festival(HIFF)-a stalwart advocate of films produced in Asia and in Pacific Island nations-kicked off its 25th anniversary year unofficially with its usual annual tradition of "sneak peak" showings by screening the period drama YEAR ONE IN THE NORTH at the Regal owned Dole Cannery Theaters in Honolulu on Thursday, September 29th at 6:30 p.m.
YEAR ONE-produced and released by Japan's Toei studios-stars Oscar nominee Ken Watanabe and is actually one of several Toei features-both classic and new-that will be unspooled during this year's fest scheduled to start on Thursday, October 20 and run until Sunday October 30 on Oahu and for a few days on outer islands.
Toei studios will actually be the recipient of a special award of excellence from the festival this year to honor the legacy of cinematic works produced and distributed by the studio.
YEAR ONE IN THE NORTH will have its official U.S. Premiere at HIFF on Sunday, October 30th at the Dole Cannery Theaters in Honolulu.
However, the unofficial "premiere" on September 29 attracted a healthy but certainly not jam packed crowd.
Set initially in 1870 then moving forward a year than two before finally leapfrogging five years ahead, YEAR ONE (or KITA NO ZERONEN) takes place during perhaps the most crucial time in Japan's development of nation: when the restoration of the Emperor from a mere bloodline-selected titleholder(though with god-like status) to a monarch with some power and authority was accomplished by grabbing power away from the Shogunate.
It also ends the feudal system of Japan- the elimination of the different Clans with their Lords or Daimyo, their rice-laden land holdings, even the Samurai warrior class as well as the ties bound peasant to Clan, Samurai to Lord-and the transition to a modern nation.
YEAR ONE takes a look at one aspect of this change by uprooting an entire clan and placing them on the the island of Hokkaido.
By order of the Meiji government, the Inada clan is forced to depart from their seat at Awaji and head off to Hokkaido.
The contrast between the old and new can be seen at the beginning of YEAR ONE. The film opens with a close up of the face of a woman, eyes closed contentedly. We cut to a wider shot of this woman in a kimono lying down as the screen door to her house is opened shot almost from the vantage point of the cherry blossom tree in the yard.
A young girl is calling out "mother" a few times and then comes into frame. The film then cuts to the interior of the house as we see mother awake and her daughter speaking to her. We also see blossom falling the tree outside as a brilliantly sunny day provides nature's mega wattage to light up the sky and the tableau we are witnessing.
The young girl has been urges her mother to get going as the "ballad singers are going to start."
We next see a small portable puppet theater and people sitting and standing on the ground to watch a Bunraku show.
A Kimono clad man with the telltale semi domed head of the samurai with his hair tied in a topknot in the back sees the woman and her daughter who have arrived to see the puppet show.
We later find out that this man is Squire Hideaki Komatsubara and that the woman he is smiling at and that was mentioned earlier is his wife Shino. The girl is their daughter Tae.
This scene seems pleasant, quaint and idyllic but the Bunraku show provides an omen of sorts as a sword-wielding puppet with a fierce expression cuts off the head of another puppet thus foreshadowing harsh times to come.
After titles that fill us in on the Inada clan's forced relocation by the government, the film cuts to an interior shot of a boat on the seas. Inside we see women and men talking amongst themselves, grumbling about the Meiji government's order to evict them and generally passing time.
A young man rushed in: Land has been sighted! The clan members hurriedly make their way out of the the ship's quarters to take a look.
Of course, Shino makes her way out as well but then we get a second major close-up of her face as hopeful curiosity turns to worry and uneasiness.
Shino is not alone in getting a close-up as the camera focuses on several clan members before showing a blended shot of the uninhabited coastline of Hokkaido from the ship as if the camera were one of the passengers.
In these opening scenes we get a slight sense of the life that was and the life that is to come.
YEAR ONE then plunges into its story largely one of class and societal readjustment, death and disillusionment yet also hope and perseverance.
Hideaki and a number of other samurai have already been on Hokkaido working on building a residence for the Clan's Lord when Shino, Tae and the rest of the contingent arrive.
The Inada clan members have had start from scratch-cutting down trees, digging hoes into dirt of the island to soften the soil for planting crops, putting up their own houses-but look forward to the second and third waves of clan adherents arriving in the coming seasons as well the Lord they swear allegiance to.
Months later, tragedy strikes, an apothecary named Kurazo arrives with a letter. The letter is read out to the islands new inhabitants stating 83 members of the clan were killed when a boat heading to Hokkaido went down in a channel.
People start to drop to their knees and wail in grief as they hear the names of family members or loved ones who died read off one by one.
Hideaki then grabs the letter and notices a black space near the edge of the letter. He improvises pretending to read onward and telling everyone that their Lord would arrives in the Spring. This obviously en effort to inspire hope in the remaining clan members.
Hope as Emily Dickinson once wrote is the thing with feathers. But a stiff wind can easily disperse feathers and so the hope of these "pioneers" of sorts begins to wither.
The Inada clan's Lord finally arrives-not in the spring but sometime after that-but he has terrible news: the feudal system has been rent asunder as the Meiji Government done away with clan leadership and holding and redivided all the land in Japan into prefectures.
This is a dagger in the heart to all the samurai and lesser lords. Some of them wish to return home to Awaji but Hideaki elects to stay and cuts his topknot in an act of futility. They settled this island and they must tough it out. The other men follow suit by cutting their topknots and pledging to stay.
There is a major problem to contend with. The methods used to plant Rice in Awaji don't work in Hokkaido and Hideaki is sent on a journey to an institute in Sapporo to obtain some seedling .
Shino has been a supportive and loving wife to Hideaki and is confident that he will return. But the seasons pass and Hideaki has not returned. The rice situation has grown intolerable for the de facto villagers and into this breach comes the former apothecary Kurazo who has now cornered the market on rice on Hokkaido by working with census officials.
No rice or miso to eat? No problem. We'll take care of you-for a price.
Watching and offering a helping hand at time is Ashirika, a man dressed in the garb on the native Ainu who's handy with a bow and arrow.
Later 5 years pass, Shino is caring for horses alongside her teenaged daughter Tae.
A lot has changed on Hokkaido. There are at least a couple of westerners on the island. There is a small town of sorts. Kurazo has used his cunning to become Mayor. The former samurai of the Inada clan now wear western suits and works in the Mayor's office.
There are twists and turns which I won't reveal-even if they are predictable-but YEAR ONE ends on a note of fierce optimism.
The Scarlett O'Hara-like tomorrow-is-another-day ending of YEAR ONE is not enough propel the film from middling to good status.
Clocking in at nearly 3 hours, YEAR ONE is a surprisingly watchable melodrama at times that never fails to engage the viewer despite the overall length of the film.
Perhaps most of the credit for this should go to the film's director Isao Yukisada and his DP Nobuyasu Kita. Kita does a fine job overall of shooting the film especially in the film's opening scenes.
Helmer Yukisada also keeps the film moving at a decent pace by breaking the film up into sections headed by seasons so as not to tire audiences unaccustomed lengthy dramas without a lot of a surplus of violent, sexual or speedily cut scenes.
Yukisada keeps his camera largely stationary and utilizes a lot of dissolves and fades to show the absence of characters or the passing of time.
However, YEAR ONE's screenplay is pretty standard stuff. Written by Machiko Nasu, the screenplay features a not at all unusual array of character types-the wily individual of low birth who rises along with the times and takes advantage of change, the long-suffering wife, the well-meaning husband, the largely silent loner who offers help and the community that will stand up for what it believes.
Though there are some good performances especially Sayuri Yoshinaga's work as the supportive but tough Shino, Teruyuki Kagawa's enjoyable turn as the slippery Kurazo and Ken Watanabe's fine work as Hideaki, YEAR ONE's story fails to move beyond the tried and true and create a compelling and powerful narrative.
This is a shame because YEAR ONE is actually worth viewing at times and is fairly adept at keeping an audience member's attention.
Then again, so does any other decent melodrama. I have never been a fan of melodrama and never will be because they depend on the cheap, obvious, tacky, and simplistic ways to move an audience.
Melodramas largely fail because they ring false and fail to discover truth in the characters and truth in the emotions.
Director Isao Yukisada shows in YEAR ONE what he did in his previous film the tragic romance CRYING OUT LOVE, IN THE CENTER OF THE WORLD (which screened at this year's HIFF Spring Film Festival): take interesting characters and put them in physically and emotionally trying circumstances.
At least in CRYING OUT LOVE there was a real sense of loss and teenage love and enough evinced as to jump from the screen and hit the hearts of those watching in the audience.
YEAR ONE has some moving scenes-the reading of the letter and the cutting of the samurai's topknot are two such scenes-but there is too much of the inevitable, the predictable and mundanely obvious in the flow of its plot points.
Its a shame because I came to like some of the characters but I can't buy the hamburger if the bun is stale.
I'm sure that HIFF 2005 will have enough tasty dishes as as to satisfy my cinematic appetite.