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Kyoto would seem to be the most international city in Japan, if the number of foreign tourists were the only criterion. More than a million visit the city annually, giving the 1.5 million locals, especially ones living and working in and near the major tourist sites, plenty of exposure to outlanders.

But as Yuki Saito’s film “The Old Capital” makes clear, residents of this ancient city, whose Kyoto ties may extend back centuries, do not all embrace this influx. It represents one of many threats to the traditional culture and way of life that attract many visitors to the city in the first place.

Photographed by cinematographer Jitsu Toyota, the older, less-trafficked parts of Kyoto and the nearby forests and streams have rarely looked so coffee-table-book lovely. Glimpses of the noisy modern city or tourist-clogged areas like the Gion district are by contrast rare.

The Old Capital (Koto)
Rating
Run Time 117 mins
Language Japanese
Opens Now showing

Also the four main characters — twin sisters (both played by Yasuko Matsuyuki) and their grown daughters (Riko Narumi and Ai Hashimoto) — are what might be called “local patriots,” whose Kyoto roots go as deep as their DNA, no matter how far they wander.

Loosely based on Yasunari Kawabata’s eponymous 1962 novel, which has been filmed twice before, “The Old Capital” may well be heart-warming and confidence-boosting to the domestic audience, but as a non-native who has wandered Kyoto’s back streets, I couldn’t help feeling ever-so-politely excluded. And though the kimono, calligraphy and other cultural artifacts on display are wonderful to behold, I couldn’t shake the (entirely false) impression the project had been underwritten by “Cool Japan” bureaucrats, anxious to show the nation’s best face to the world.

The film’s central heroine, Chieko Sada (Matsuyuki), is anxious in another sense: The kimono store she and her good-natured husband Ryusuke (Tsuyoshi Ihara), run has been in the family for generations, but business is slow. To keep the financial wheels turning Ryusuke reluctantly gives tours of the premises to curious foreigners and Chieko works part-time outside the store. Meanwhile, their only daughter, Mai (Hashimoto), is agonizing about her post-college future. Should she work for a prosperous trading company where her mother has connections or take over the kimono store, as has long seemed her destiny? Or, heaven forfend, try something else entirely?

So far, standard family drama fare — familiar from screens here both big and small. But the story soon takes an unusual turn. Chieko, we learn, was adopted into the Sada family and has a twin sister, Naeko, living in the Kitayama hills north of the city. Naeko also has a daughter, Yui (Narumi), who is studying art in Paris and feeling lost and alone.

As shown in a sepia-tinged flashback, Chieko and Naeko met as young women, but have long since gone their separate ways. Mai has no knowledge of Yui’s existence.

Then Mai’s calligraphy teacher asks Mai to accompany her to a Japanese cultural festival in Paris. Will Mai venture outside Kyoto for the first time and finally meet her long-lost cousin?

Most women Mai’s age, Kyoto-ites or not, would jump at a free trip to France. But Mai has to consider a web of obligations, centering on her traditionally minded mom, and overcome her own reluctance to uproot herself, even for two weeks. Similar to the film’s other women, her psychology seems to belong to another, more circumscribed era, but is presented as pure-spirited — and quintessentially Japanese.

Not to say that Mai and Chieko, both so exquisite in kimono and excruciatingly proper in speech and manner, have no real-life counterparts, but I kept waiting, fruitlessly, for them to break through their Kyoto bubble. Instead, they carry it with them everywhere, somewhat like the shells of those famed tortoises from that other island group, the Galapagos.

In line with COVID-19 guidelines, the government is strongly requesting that residents and visitors exercise caution if they choose to visit bars, restaurants, music venues and other public spaces.

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