‘Yama no Anata’

Disabled by playing it foolishly

by Mark Schilling

Film remakes are usually reinterpretations. Gore Verbinski’s “The Ring” (2002) has not only a different location (Pacific Northwest) but a different story line and mythology from Hideo Nakata’s original “Ring (Ringu)” (1998).

The classic Japanese ghost stories about vengeful female spooks that inspired the scares in “Ring” didn’t quite translate to the remake’s American context. Verbinski and his collaborators found effective enough solutions to this problem — “The Ring” was a scary film — but they also lost something in the translation.

In remaking the 1938 Hiroshi Shizimu film “Anma to Onna (The Masseur and the Woman),” while retitling it “Yama no Anata — Tokuichi no Koi (You of the Mountain — Tokuichi’s Love),” Katsuhito Ishii didn’t have to cross cultures or languages. He also didn’t have to re-imagine Shimizu’s story about a blind masseur’s love for a mysterious beauty since he decided to re-create the original, almost shot for shot.

Did he have it easier than Verbinski? Not entirely. Verbinski didn’t have to make a 70-year-old film relevant to a modern audience. He also didn’t have to worry about reviewers calling his work a travesty of a masterpiece. In other words, the sort of critical shellacking Gus Van Sant got for his 1998 shot-by-shot remake of the 1960 Alfred Hitchcock classic “Psycho.”

Yama no Anata
Director Katsuhito Ishii
Run Time 94 minutes
Language Japanese

After seeing both versions, I can’t call Ishii’s a travesty. He understands the spirit of Shimizu’s film — from its earthy comedy to its refined pathos — and conveys it well in his remake without a heavy overlay of directorial ego. He also says in a program note that he and his staff wanted to “go one better” than the original — a healthier attitude than the kind of blind worship that would result in a lifeless copy.

But why a remake in the first place? Ishii said he wanted to make a film his parents and grandparents would find interesting — and “Anma to Onna” fit the bill. Ishii’s films to date, including his 1998 debut “Samehada Otoko to Momojiri Onna (Shark Skin Man and Peach Hip Girl)” and his previous feature “Naisu no Mori — The First Contact (Funky Forest — The First Contact)” (2005), are on the freaky, head scratching side. Quentin Tarantino is famously a fan — he even added a shout out to Ishii to the credits of “Kill Bill: Vol. 2” — but Mom and Gran may have been a different matter.

The main problem with the film is its attitude toward the disability of its hero, Tokuichi (Tsuyoshi Kusanagi), and his visually handicapped companions is the same as in 1938. They flail their sticks wildly, twist their faces grotesquely and otherwise behave more or less like buffoons, just as the blind masseurs in Shimizu’s film did to give the audience of the time a giggle.

The Hollywood of the day had a similar attitude toward black characters in its films. They may have been tough and resourceful, like Hattie McDaniel’s Mammy in “Gone With the Wind,” but they were also usually clownish. A faithful remake of “Gone With the Wind” today, including its period racism, would inspire not nostalgia but outrage in most of the United States.

Tokuichi, however, is more than a clown. As he walks up a mountain road to a hot-springs resort with his companion, Fukuichi (Ryo Kase), he shows an almost psychic ability to learn facts about people he passes just from his hypersensitive ears. On the way, the pair is overtaken by a horse cart carrying Michiho (Maiko), a woman from Tokyo, and Shintaro Omura (Shinichi Tsutsumi), a man traveling with his young nephew, Kenichi (Ryohei Hirota). The driver tells them of Fukuichi’s amazing powers and they are suitably impressed.

Yokuichi’s first client at the Kujiraya hot-spring inn is Michiho. He can sense from her tense muscles that she is in some kind of trouble. He also feels the stirrings of unfamiliar emotion. Unlike the rest of his clients, including a group of loutish college boys, she treats him as something more than a servant — maybe even as a man.

After this charged beginning, the film putters good naturedly along. Fukuichi is teased by a group of attractive girl students who encounter him and Tokuichi on the road for pushing their pace so hard. Meanwhile, the sly masseur takes his revenge on the college boys, who refused to let him pass on the same path, by kneading their legs into hamburger, until they can barely stand.

The film takes a more serious turn when the boys discover that someone stole their wallets while they were in the bath. The finger of suspicion points to the only other guest at the inn — Michiho. Oblivious to her danger, Michiho makes friends with Kenichi, who is bored to tears and thus itching to be naughty, and his uncle Shintaro, who is strangely anxious to return to Tokyo.

There is not much of a plot but instead much gently pointed insight into the vagaries of human nature. Tsuyoshi Kusanagi, a member of the pop group SMAP, is quite good as Tokuichi despite overdoing the comic blind man routine. He projects a quiet self assurance and sensitivity that make Michiho’s romantic interest not just plausible but inevitable. Still, I would have been happier if his conception of his disabled character had been more like Jaime Fox’s Ray Charles in “Ray,” who had a big laugh but never played the fool.