Sunday, December 20, 2015

Notes on Kazoku (A Family aka Where Spring comes late by Yoji Yamada, Japan: 1970

I know this film for more than 30 years and I learned to love it a lot. But I remember that I hesitated a lot with my love during the first watching of this film and other films by Yamada as well. I was used to appreciate the formal strictness of the films by Yasujiro Ozu and for some time I considered Yamada´s concept a kind of anti concept to Ozu´s every day stories. Yes, I even felt at the beginning disturbed by Yamada´s seemingly unarrested use of melodrama. Today I am an unconditional admirer of Yoji Yamada, mostly his films he made between his successful Tora-san Series (that among the Tora-san films are as well some masterpiece is a subject of its own).
 Recently I saw Kazoku again and I became aware of the reasons for my earlier misunderstanding of this film (and a couple of other masterpieces made by him in the same decade). First thing which came to my mind was the discovery that reality and melodrama are , at least in this period of Yamadas work, in a very complex and dynamic relationship. There is of course the melodramatic forced fiction but equally there are a lot of glimpses and hints to Japanese reality of the 1970s, especially to working class realities. 
The film and this is typical for Yamada´s other masterpieces like Kokyo (Home From the Sea, 1971), Harakara (The Village, 1975) and Shiwase no kiroi no hankachi (the yellow Handkerchief (1977). There is in these films (how could I have ignored that?) an obvious documentary element. For a long time I considered him - even after I began to love his films-  as a seducer, a master of feel good movies. But in fact Yamada always leaves the choice to us. You can be absorbed by the melodramatic element, you can be moved by the story of a christian miner family who travels all the way by train from the south of Japan to the less populated North of Hokkaido to begin a new life as farmers. But during the long scenes which takes place in driving trains you can also look out of the window. This look out the window reveals traces of reality, not only the landscapes but also the deformed industrial landscape of this industry nation like huge factories, concrete buildings in the big cities etc. 

The long geographical journey is well researched, its actually the skeleton of the plot and it is not the last time a film by Yamada will base on a geographical journey. Shiwase no kiroi no hankachi and the last installment of his Gakko-series (Gakko 4, 2000) are as well journeys. And it is not as easy to distinguish always the documentary elements from the fiction like I thought. Sometimes the cinema as the art of visual story telling and cinema as a reflection of the world claim their right – and sometimes suddenly and unexpected. 
There is one moment which stayed with me over the years and which is probably one of the most disturbing moments in the films by Yoji Yamada. It is in a way a harsh confrontation with the drama of the fiction and the drama of reality. During their long journey the family reaches Tokyo, the youngest child, a hardly one years old baby girl gets very sick and they have to make a little odyssey through Tokyo to find a doctor. Finally they find an emergency station. The doctors and nurses are very busy, the family´s tragedy is only one of many. And suddenly and unexpected we see a stretcher with a heavily bleeding schoolgirl ehivh id  pushed through the station (and through the mighty cinemas cope frame). We hear a small but important spoken comment that this girl has attempted suicide in an underground railway station. For a moment these intense seconds push away the whole fiction. The moment is like a rupture in the earth cause by an earthquake. Even though this rupture will be closed again the memory of this horrible moment remains. The family is like this bleeding girl part of a large group of misfits which really don´t fit in this economic super power called Japan.
There is a good reason for the enormous popularity of Yoji Yamada in Japan. Highly respected by the unions and often called “the voice of the people” the director is indeed one of the very rare ones in the history of cinema who permanently focused on the class which obviously paid a hard prize for the economical raise of Japan after the second World war. And this interest or let´s call it even tenderness is not ideological founded like in the majority of western films dealing with the working class. None of Yamada´s heroes are political conscious fighter for the labor´s rights. In this sense Yamada follows this unique tradition of films on every day life, a sensitiveness which was never approached by the rest of the world. He might be closer to another master of shomingeki films Keisuke Kinoshita than to the great stylists Ozu and Naruse or this inspired master of improvisation Shimizu.
Despite his reputation as one of the most successful film director in the history of Japanese cinema, even his most popular films include often daring elements and playfulness. Even as a studio director in the 1970s the phenomenon Yamada was already an anachronism. If we have today still an idea how freely the old masters Ozu, Naruse, Shimizu or Kinoshita moved  with an independent spirit under the condition of the studio system than we owe that Yoji Yamada.

Rüdiger Tomczak