The Japanese student-protest movement of the late 1960s and early 1970s had much in common with its American counterpart, from its massive street demonstrations to its taste in music (The Beatles and Bob Dylan) and movies (anything with Dustin Hoffman or Jack Nicholson).

But it was also quite different, as I am reminded nearly every time I see a Japanese film set in the period, from Koji Wakamatsu’s stark 2007 docudrama “Jitsuroku Rengo Sekigun: Asama Sanso e no Michi (United Red Army)” to Nobuhiro Yamashita’s new “My Back Page,” a rambling but grippingly nuanced drama based on autobiographical nonfiction by essayist, translator and film critic Saburo Kawamoto.

For one thing, the influence of the American counterculture was understandably weaker here. Hair was longer among the protestors than the short-cropped mainstream male norm, but the concept of politics as theater of the absurd (as seen in the career of jokester-cum-revolutionary Abbie Hoffman) was less in evidence than on the streets of Berkeley. Japanese radicals were extremely serious types and, on occasion, murderous.

My Back Page
Director Nobuhiro Yamashita
Run Time 141 minutes
Language Japanese
Opens Opens May 28, 2011

Instead of the straight-ahead, deep-immersion approach of Wakamatsu’s film, Yamashita tells his story from a more oblique angle. His hero is Sawada (Satoshi Tsumabuki), a naive young journalist writing for a weekly magazine and feeling out of place among his harder-headed (if not hard-hearted) seniors.

In the opening scenes, we see him getting bloodied at a rally in 1969 while being initiated into the magazine’s style of gonzo (and barely legal) journalism. We also see him awkwardly starting a relationship with a disconcertingly doe-eyed but sharply perceptive magazine cover girl (Shiori Kutsuna).

The story proper begins in 1971 as the mass-protest era is ending—and the remaining activists are becoming more extreme. One is Umeyama (Kenichi Matsuyama), a young radical who coolly informs Sawada and an older colleague that his group is planning an action in April with stolen weaponry. The colleague contemptuously dismisses Umeyama as a fake, but Sawada is not so sure, especially after he discovers that Umeyama also likes Kenji Miyazawa (a famed poet and children’s literature author) and hears his soulful rendition of Creedence Clearwater Revival’s “Have You Ever Seen the Rain” (whose lyrics about “a calm before the storm” make it an appropriate choice).

Most films set in this turbulent era of Japanese history, including Anh Hung Tran’s 2010 adaptation of “Noruwei no Mori (Norwegian Wood),” in which Matsuyama also starred, miss the queasy ambivalence of the time that “My Back Page” nails precisely—the fiery rage at the establishment versus the dawning realization that real revolution would require real blood on the streets, not just a march or two around the Pentagon or Diet Building.

Even the few who said they were ready to shed it, such as Umeyama, often felt like frauds compared with their revolutionary heroes—Che Guevara, Mao Zedong and Ho Chi Minh among them—who walked the walk even if it meant prison or death.

Yamashita, who is best known abroad for the dryly funny, rousingly energetic teen dramady “Linda Linda Linda” (2005), is not the most obvious director for this material, but from his start as a maker of zero-budget indie comedies (2000’s “Hazy Life” and 2003’s “No One’s Ark” and “Ramblers”), he has been good at capturing not only grubby absurdities but also morally gray complexities. Working from a script by Kosuke Mukai, he exposes fugitive truths of character that another director, trying to make everything simple for a big audience, would either ignore or steamroller.

Both Sawada and Umeyama (who we know from the start is not who he says he is) are, like so many of their generation, making up their identities as they go along—and not always feeling comfortable with the fit. They are also both finally forced to make choices that will permanently change lives, including their own.

Never the most concise of storytellers, Yamashita take his sweet time detailing period atmospherics and building to a climax that is uncharacteristically dramatic in a political/police thriller sort of way. But that was also the reality of the era, whose violent passions and acts now look as distant as the Warring States Period.

Both Tsumabuki and Matsuyama are perfectly cast—not always the case with these two much-in-demand actors. Tsumabuki, who was a bit too clenched as the killer on the run in last year’s “Akunin (Villain)” by Lee Sang Il, eloquently expresses both the angst and the tenacity of Sawada, trapped between the demands of his job and his conscience. Matsuyama, who tamped himself down as the wishy-washy, apolitical hero of “Norwegian Wood,” is far better as Umeyama, bubbling with dangerous, unstable energy and chilling us with the crystalline hardness of his character’s ego.

At the same time, Umeyama can be almost childishly shallow—and blusteringly anxious not to show it. He reminded me again why “bullsh-t” was the catchword of the era—and why so many of us were guilty of spreading it.

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