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‘Chiisai Ouchi (The Little House)’

Regrets in the present for secrets in the past

by Mark Schilling

Special To The Japan Times

Several veterans of Japan’s old studio system are still working, but Yoji Yamada is the only one still directing for the studio he started out with, back in 1954. He has directed 81 films for Shochiku; his extraordinary box-office success with the “Tora-san” series, 48 films from 1969 to 1995 about the romantic misadventures of the titular wandering peddler, not only kept Yamada employed, but Shochiku afloat.

Yamada has also won his share of kudos abroad, especially with 2002′s “Tasogare Seibei (The Twilight Samurai)” and other films in his humanistic “samurai trilogy,” but compared to studio senior Yasujiro Ozu he is still lightly regarded by many foreign critics and scholars. Too much “Tora-san,” for one thing.

His latest film, “Chiisai Ouchi (The Little House),” won’t rectify this situation, though it is the kind of Showa Era (1926-89) drama that has become a Yamada specialty. Born in 1931, Yamada not only lived through the film’s 1935-45 time frame, but has a fine-tuned sense for everything from period decor to social mores.

The film, set mostly in the red-roofed house of the title, reminded me of the architectural museum in Tokyo’s Koganei Park. It preserves the kind of upper-middle-class existence that, to the working classes of the early Showa, was little more than a dream, and today looks cozy and idyllic.

The chatty-sounding dialogue, co-written by Yamada, is yet another throwback, this time to Ozu, whose masterpiece 1953 “Tokyo Monogatari (Tokyo Story)” was patchily remade by Yamada last year as “Tokyo Kazoku (Tokyo Family).”

The story, like those of Ozu films in similar bourgeois settings, is no nostalgic look back at simpler times, however. Instead, it is a tale of illicit adult love witnessed by a pure-hearted young housemaid — and recalled by her decades after the event.

This flashback structure has become common in local films set in the tumultuous early decades of the Showa, which are quickly passing from living memory and, the filmmakers assume, must be explained to younger viewers. Yamada, however, also uses this structure to tellingly illustrate how time’s passage softens the impact of emotions and deeds that once seemed life-changing — or rather, marriage-threatening.

The film begins in the present, shortly following the death of Taki (“Tora-san” series regular Chieko Baisho), an elderly woman who had been writing reminiscences of her youth with the encouragement of her loving, if jokingly critical, great-nephew Takeshi (Satoshi Tsumabuki).

The story soon shifts to 1935, when Taki (Haru Kuroki), now a bashful, apple-cheeked teenager, comes from snowy Yamagata Prefecture to work as a maid in Tokyo. After a year with a tart-tongued novelist (Isao Hashizume), she leaves for the titular “little house” in the suburbs, where Masaki Hirai (Takataro Kataoka), a toy-company executive, lives with his wife Tokiko (Takako Matsu) and their 5-year-old son Kyoichi.

Taki is taken with the Hirais, especially the outgoing, cultured and, for a woman of the era, blithely independent Tokiko.

Then at a home New Year’s celebration, Tokiko meets Itakura (Hidetaka Yoshioka), a young designer at her husband’s company. Another immigrant from the Far North, Itakura is artistic to his fingertips — and uninterested in the other men’s talk of war and profits. He and Tokiko, who admires his talent for drawing and shares his passion for classical music, soon strike up a platonic friendship.

Meanwhile, Taki is in the background approvingly observing the flowering of this relationship — she also likes the gentle-spirited Itakura. But as it deepens into passion, she becomes alarmed.

Yamada has not made the conventional type of love-triangle melodrama. Instead, the film is centrally concerned with Taki and how this affair (if indeed it is an affair) impacts both her relationship with Tokiko and her later life. From a bumpkin who stands in fear and awe of her exquisitely kimonoed employer, Taki becomes a trusted confidante who can, when the situation demands it, speak the uncomfortable truth to her.

The daughter of a distinguished kabuki family, Matsu plays Tokiko as a bubbly democratic sort who can suddenly turn aristocratically steely if she is thwarted or denied. That is, she is used to getting her own way, and doesn’t much care who knows it.

The film itself, though, wobbles toward the end with the big reveal about a secret Taki has been keeping for 60 years. Yamada, a populist to his bones, can’t help hyping the action in approved commercial drama style. At the same time, he quietly evokes the era’s many tragedies of hopes denied and futures aborted.

And the little house itself? You will have to search hard and long to find anything like it on today’s market — but there’s always that museum in Koganei.