How many directors make great movies after turning 70? John Huston did it with “The Dead,” likewise Akira Kurosawa with “Ran” and Clint Eastwood with “Letters from Iwo Jima,” but the numbers are few.
To that short list now add Yoji Yamada. The filmmaker is best known for directing all 48 installments of “Otoko wa Tsurai Yo” (aka “Tora-san”), his film series about a lovelorn peddler. ‘Tora-san” put Yamada in the Guinness Book of Records for the longest-running movie series in the world, but not on many foreign critics’ best-director lists. Instead, he was denounced by many critics (though not this one) as a studio hack, grinding out easily digestible product for the masses.
Even Yamada, when I first met him in 1991 at the height of his “Tora-san” fame, compared himself to a soba-noodle chef, tossing out bowl after bowl of what he hoped was tasty soup.
But Yamada also had higher ambitions. “Shiawase no Kiiroi Hankachi (The Yellow Handkerchief of Happiness)” from 1977 and 1991′s “Musuko (My Sons)” were serious dramatic films that won many domestic awards, but were little seen abroad.
His true flowering, however, has come this decade, after the “Tora-san” series. In 2002 he released his first period drama, “Tasogare Seibei (The Twilight Samurai),” which scooped an Oscar nomination for Best Foreign Language Film. He followed up with two more entries in what came to be his “samurai trilogy”: 2004′s “Kakushi ken oni no Tsume (The Hidden Blade)” and, two years later, “Bushi no Ichibun (Love and Honor),” which were also showered with accolades.
In these films, Yamada largely excised the folksy comedy and sentimentality that had been his “Tora-san” trademarks, instead telling stories of romantic love, family ties and life-or-death battles with a fresh narrative efficiency, visual richness and emotional impact.
In his latest film “Kaabee (Kabei: Our Mother),” Yamada returns to a favorite theme — the family — and the more recent time of 1940-41, just before Japan plunged over the abyss and into World War II.
His script is based on a memoir by Teruyo Nogami about her turbulent life as a girl growing up in Tokyo. Nogami would go on to become Akira Kurosawa’s script supervisor for more than four decades. (Disclosure: I have known Nogami for years and interviewed her for her memoir “Waiting on the Weather.”)
Yamada’s luminous style and humanistic concerns hark back to Japanese cinema’s golden age of Kurosawa, Yasujiro Ozu, Kenji Mizoguchi and Mikio Naruse. That is not to say that “Kaabee” is in any way an hommage, only that Yamada is the closest in spirit — and talent — to those giants among Japanese directors.
He still knows how to move the big audience to laughter and tears, though. “Kaabee” has all the making of a box-office smash, minus the broad, obvious strokes of the typical commercial director, trained to grab the attention of eyeballs in television land.
Yamada films even the big dramatic moments — such as the shock of a home being stormed by tatami-tromping police and the pathos of a young girl’s love for her arrested father — with a distance and detachment, while inviting the audience to draw on its own experience and imagination to complete the picture. It’s somewhat the way Rembrandt painted: The themes and subjects are accessible at first glance, but the shadows and subtleties invite further reflection, and say even more.
That particular Old Master comparison also applies to the film’s color composition, with its rich, dark browns, and its images that, in their spiritual power and quiet beauty, illuminate the depths of the human heart.
The story begins in February 1940, when Teruyo (Miku Sato), her older sister, Hatsuko (Mirai Shida), her mother, Kayo (Sayuri Yoshinaga) and father, Shigeru (Mitsugoro Bando), are enjoying what will be their last meal together. That night the police arrive to arrest Shigeru, a professor and authority on German literature, particularly of the political kind that calls for peace and is critical of the government.
Kayo tells her daughters that their father will soon return — but he doesn’t. Yamazaki (Tadanobu Asano), a geeky but good-hearted former student of Shigeru’s, rallies to her side and helps her wangle a visit with Shigeru in jail. She takes Teruyo with her and the girl is horrified by the change that has come over her father, now filthy, emaciated and covered with sores.
Yamazaki becomes a constant, welcome presence in their lives, as does Kayo’s younger sister, Hisako (Rei Dan), who comes from Hiroshima to help Kayo with the cooking and child care while attending art school. Meanwhile, Kayo begins teaching at a local elementary school to earn much-needed money.
In short, life resumes a semblance of normality, with interludes of laughter and joy, though Shigeru’s absence is keenly felt. As the political climate darkens, the likelihood of his release becomes ever fainter. Also, Kayo’s police-chief father (Umenosuke Nakamura), who strongly opposed her marriage, is forced to resign from his post because of his disgraceful son-in-law — and becomes estranged from Kayo as a result.
Relief arrives in the form of ever-smiling Uncle Senkichi (Shofukutei Tsurube), who comes to visit one summer from Nara. The sexually budding Hatsuko hates his suggestive teasing, but Kayo likes his honesty and tolerance — talking to him, she can finally discard her various masks.
Then Japan launches its attack on Pearl Harbor in December 1941 and, with the war in full fury, the Nogami family’s small, fragile island of peace begins to fall apart and dissolve.
Of the dozens of Japanese films set in wartime, “Kaabee” is the most heart-breaking, starting from the first scene.
Instead of the usual valiant-but- conflicted warriors, the film centers on one close, but vulnerable, family — particularly the youngest, Teruyo. Playing her, the fresh-faced Miku Sato radiates a natural, childlike wonder and horror far more affecting than the usual movie-kid mugging and posturing. She lifts the film out of the period-drama past and into the living present.
As does Yoshinaga, who powerfully conveys Kayo’s fear, exhaustion and bedrock strength. Yes, this screen icon, with more than 100 films and half a century in the business behind her, is too old for the role, but after five minutes I accepted Yamada’s explanation for casting her — that people aged more quickly then, and with good reason.
“Kaabee” may sound like high art of the solemn sort, but Yamada injects trademark bits of rough humor, such as Yamazaki’s embarrassing roll on the tatami after sitting too long in seiza (an upright formal posture in which the calves are tucked under the thighs), ending with the girls getting a good look at the holes in his socks. Yamada’s populist “Tora-san” side is still alive and well, in other words.
“Kaabee” is a masterpiece by any measure. At 76, Yamada is enjoying his own Golden Age — and the best may still be ahead.