Film / Reviews

'Kono Michi': A biopic heavy on sentimentality

by Mark Schilling

Contributing Writer

Biopics are a Hollywood staple, though poets don’t usually get a lot of play, with the Beats (Allen Ginsberg, Jack Kerouac and company) among the prominent exceptions. The same is true in Japan: Notorious criminals are more likely to be the subjects of biopics here than famous wordsmiths.

So Kiyoshi Sasabe’s “Konomichi,” a decades-spanning celebration of early 20th century poet Hakushu Kitahara, is something of an outlier. But as lyricist to composer Kosaku Yamada, Kitahara is responsible for some of the best-known Japanese children’s songs of the past century, including the title tune. Rare is the Japanese who has neither heard nor sung it.

Also, the film itself is squarely in the genre’s local mainstream in being more of an earnest hagiography than an expose, though it is faithful to the outlines of its subject’s life, from the scandalous extramarital affair that landed him in jail to the alcoholism that finally killed him.

Konomichi
Rating
Run Time 104 mins.
Language JAPANESE
Opens Jan. 11

As played by Nao Omori, a versatile actor who is often cast as unheroic types, Kitahara is an impulsive, effusive man who, unlike most of his male contemporaries, has never lost touch with his inner child. In fact he is happiest romping with the neighborhood kids, while even with adult friends and acquaintances he weeps, hugs and otherwise expresses his emotions in blithe defiance of the era’s macho norms.

But within his bohemian artistic circle, which includes editor Miekichi Suzuki (Shingo Yanagisawa) and the poet couple Akiko (Michiko Hada) and Tekkan Yosano (Yutaka Matsushige), Kitahara is a loved and respected figure, his excesses and eccentricities tolerated and indulged. One reason is his poetic talent, which is recognized early on (the film skips straight to the successful part of his career). Another is his pure spirit and kind nature (at least in Omori’s performance). Even in his affair with the married Toshiko (Wakana Matsumoto), a sensual proto-moga (“modern girl” or flapper), he is more the bright-eyed enthusiast than the coldly calculating womanizer (though Toshiko’s outraged husband might beg to disagree).

These and the many other scenes attesting to Kitahara’s wonderfulness were beginning to grate this nonfan when Yamada (played by singled-named pop star and actor Akira) arrived in his life and thankfully brought out another, testier side of his personality.

Listening to Yamada propose a collaboration, with the composer putting the poet’s words to music, Kitahara flies into a violent rage, complaining that it would cheapen his poetry. Naturally, he changes his tune — a development foreshadowed from the film’s beginning, when an elderly Yamada, after conducting a girls’ chorus in a rendition of “Konomichi,” reminisces tearfully about his long-time friend and partner to a young reporter.

The film also follows Kitahara’s descent into alcoholism and ill health, hastened by the wartime pressure to write jingoistic songs for the military, not his now-beloved tunes for children. But since it would never do to end on a down note, the film returns to Kitahara and Yamada’s happier days, bathed in a nostalgic glow.

All this is a far cry from the sort of biopics Hollywood is churning out now, which tend to shy from blatant sentimentality. But I’m sure “Konomichi” would warm the heart of Louis B. Mayer, a studio boss from Hollywood’s Golden Era who believed biopics should inspire — if with fudged facts — and deliver a good cry..

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