Saturday, February 15, 2014

Chiisai Ouchi (The Little House) by Yoji Yamada, Japan: 2014, Competition-Berlin Filmfestival IX.

For T.

I Just came back from the press screening of Yoji Yamada´s Chiisai ouchi.
The film begins with a funeral. An old women has passed away. This old woman who appears in some flash backs is played by the wonderful Chieko Baisho who is for Yoji Yamada someone like Setsuko Hara for Ozu, or Hideo Takamine for Mikio Naruse. She was the working class heroine in many masterpieces by Yoji Yamada in the 1970s. For all those who love the films by Yoji Yamada will understand that my heart was already broken after the first minutes.

Chieko Baisho´s role as the aunt Taki who has never married and who never had children made me remembering her roles in the 1970s. Taki as an old woman and as a young girl in the flashbacks form the  the gravitation field of this film. Around her, Yamada spins a complex net of relationships, but with a lightness only and old master can approach. Takeshi, a young student and grand nephew of Taki finds some diary like notes from his aunt. The first flashbacks go back a few years and they reveal that Takeshi had a very special relationship with his old aunt who shared in her last years some memories with him. The curiosity of Takeshi and in us the audience is awakened. The film will now go much further into the past the 1930s, the time of Japan´s invasion in China and massacres by Japanese military against the Chinese civilians  The main part of the film will from now on focus on the teenager Taki who has to work as a house maid in a bourgeois household. From time to time the film jumps back to Takeshi´s memories in the last years of Taki´s life and than the film becomes again Taki´s memories. Just alone these two kind of memories, Takeshi´s and Taki´s how they are set in a relationship with each other how they distinguishes Takeshi´s point off view on history and Taki´s very subjective but really lived history gives an idea of Yamada as one of the greatest storytellers in contemporary cinema. Like I mentioned – if you look at narrative  aspects or if you try to describe that, it seems very complex but at the same time made with a lightness of an virtuoso.

Yamada is also a master of the art of drama which takes place in interiors. Most scenes of this film take place in closed rooms.The little house mentioned in the film title with its beautiful red roof is the point of orientation in Taki´s memories. Poverty forced her to leave her home and work as a maid. She is alone with her dreams and her longing, but unhappily involved in the affair of the lady of the house with a young art student As a loving nanny for the family´s boy who suffers under polio, she seems part of the family, but an exploited one. Even though we see very few from the outside world, war, invasion and genocide - even in the intimate space of this bourgois household, one can recognize Japan as feudal and reppressive society. The false feeling of security can change at every moment. Yamada who is called in Japan the “voice of the people” got in his own country never the critical appreciation he deserves. For my side and according to my own experiences as a member from a working class family, I am much more convinced in Yamada´s sensibility for the lower class than through the films by Ken Loach for example. If there is someone we can call a cinematic poet of the working class than it is definitely Yoji Yamada. 

Yamada the master of Japanese melodrama, often also of tragic comedies has changed during the decades of his outstanding career. At least since his Musuko (1991) the mood of his films became more bitter, from up to his masterpiece Kaabee his films includes requiem like moments. Often his films end with a funeral or death,  Chiirai ouchi  even opens with a funeral.
The dramatisation of his films changed as well in the last 20 years. There is still the clashing of comedy against tragedy and they never clashed so extreme like in Otouto (About Her Brother, 2010). Since Tokyo Kazoku his films seem to became even more contained. In Tokyo Kazoku and here in Chiisai ouchi, the music of Joe Hisaishi, one of the greatest film composers alive and a kind of Japanese Bernhard Herrman plays a very important role. Subtle small melodies permeate the film like melancholic phantoms.

Chiisai ouchi is like Clint Eastwood´s last masterpiece Hereafter wonderful cinema. If you get used to the slow pace, you will be rewarded with the finest cinematic magic these wonderful dinosaurs of world cinema has to offer. Both directors are in their Eighties. They can look back on an impressing filmography and there is nothing they have to proof anymore.

There are moments in Chiisai ouchi which appear to me like a long farewell. Just the kind how the old aunt passes her memories to her nephew seems to me like a legacy. Like Kaabee, Chiisai ouchi is again a film about Yamada´s generation, the generation of war children. 
It took me some time to get into the film. But finally Yamada got me again. I can´t count anymore the many great great films I have seen from him. Chiisai ouchi is again a precious gift made by Yoji Yamada. There is only this mood of a very long and soft farewell in this masterpiece which scares me a lot.

Rüdiger Tomczak

February 15, Friedrichstadt-Palast 9.00
February 15, Haus der Festspiele, 12.30

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