Sayuri Yoshinaga has appeared in more than 100 films since winning the hearts of millions in the 1960s playing spunky, pure-spirited teens for the Nikkatsu studio. Her legions of admirers, called “Sayurists,” have remained steadfast over the decades, while she herself has overcome personal and professional slumps to reign, in her seventh decade, as one of the last of Japan’s true movie stars.
One reason for that career longevity, as Yoshinaga so amply demonstrates in her latest film, “Kita no Kanariatachi (A Chorus of Angels),” is her sterling work ethic — that is, her willingness to go beyond the call of duty to give fans everything they want and more.
This earnest melodrama, in which she plays a teacher on a small island off the coast of Hokkaido, was filmed on location in the winter and summer of this year in conditions more commonly found in an extreme nature documentary than a star vehicle for an actress in her mid-60s. Yoshinaga not only braves bitter winds and subzero temperatures, but scampers in ankle-deep snow, swims fully clothed in icy ocean chop and climbs a water tower to a dizzying height, minus stunt or CGI assists.
In addition to performing these physical heroics, her character, Haru, exemplifies qualities that have long made Yoshinaga (or rather her public image) so liked and admired, though her roles have not always been squeaky clean. This paragon is kind, considerate and devoted to not only her students but also her hard-to-deal-with translator husband (Kyohei Shibata), who is dying painfully of cancer.
|Rating||out of 5|
|Run Time||130 minutes|
|Opens||Opens Nov. 3, 2012|
As the film begins, however, Haru has long since quit teaching and is working in a Tokyo library. Then the police question her about a murder committed by one of her former students, Nobuto (Mirai Moriyama), and Haru decides to find out what has happened to her other five charges, 20 years on.
Conveniently, they have not moved far from their childhood home, making her self-imposed task easier. Manami (Hikari Mitsushima), the only student with whom Haru has stayed in contact, is working at a park in Sarobetsu, while Naoki (Ryo Katsuji) is a salaryman in Sapporo, Yuka (Aoi Miyazaki) a kindergarten teacher in the same city, Manae (Eiko Koike) a welder in Wakkanai and Isamu (Ryuhei Matsuda) a policeman on the island.
In the course of this journey into the past, we learn that Haru cared deeply for her six students, with their various problems and disabilities, especially Nobuto, a stutterer with no memory of living with his parents. She also nurtured their hitherto undiscovered talent for singing, molding them into a cohesive vocal unit like a later-day Julie “The Sound of Music” Andrews.
But following an accident involving one of the children, Haru was driven in disgrace from the island. Years later, the trauma of her sudden departure still echoes in her students’ lives. What happened? The key to the mystery lies with an island policeman (Toru Nakamura) who was wrestling with his own conscience following a fatal lapse that ruined his career.
Director Junji Sakamoto, who has moved in a long career between acclaimed indie films (2000’s “Kao [Face]”) and commercial projects (2010’s “Zatoichi: The Last”), shoots this double-layered story with a plodding literalness and heavy earnestness, descending occasionally to hokey tearjerking, though he draws appealing performances from his six child actors, whose full-throated harmonizing to nostalgic melodies will not leave a dry eye in the theater.
Also, veteran cinematographer Daisaku Kimura conducts a master class in how to film outdoors in difficult to impossible conditions. Finally, the young stars playing the students’ 20-something incarnations strive gamely (if not always successfully) to flesh out their two-dimensional roles, while deferring furiously to Yoshinaga.
As they should, since she is the reason the film exists and, for fans and students of an enduring pop-culture icon, is worth watching.