When movie production company Shochiku needed a film to mark its centennial, there was really only one person they could ask. Yoji Yamada started working for the studio way back in 1954, and he has been a stalwart ever since. Now just shy of his 90th birthday, the veteran filmmaker must surely be due for an anniversary celebration himself.

“It’s a Flickering Life” (or “The God of Cinema,” as it’s known in Japanese) is an affectionate paean both to the halcyon days of the Japanese movie biz and to the audiences who are keeping it afloat today. Steeped in nostalgia, the film is given added poignancy by the fact that its intended star, Ken Shimura, died from COVID-19 just after production started last year.

Kenji Sawada fills the late comedian’s shoes as Go Maruyama, a cantankerous 78-year-old who’s spending his twilight years drinking too much and racking up gambling debts. After getting a house call from a loan shark, Go’s long-suffering wife, Yoshiko (Nobuko Miyamoto), and his middle-aged daughter, Ayumi (Shinobu Terajima), threaten to kick him out of the family home if he doesn’t mend his ways.

It’s a Flickering Life (Kinema no Kamisama)
Run Time 125 mins.
Language Japanese
Opens Now showing

He seeks refuge in a repertory theater run by his old friend nicknamed “Terashin” (Nenji Kobayashi), where he pinches a few beers and settles down to watch a vintage black-and-white movie that he worked on as a young man. In the film’s most magical sequence, the camera zooms in on the silver screen to reveal a camera crew reflected in the eye of the lead actress, including a younger Go (Masaki Suda).

This ushers in a series of extended flashbacks that draw on Yamada’s own experiences in the 1950s, when he worked as an assistant to director Yoshitaro Nomura. With evident relish, he re-creates the famed Shochiku Ofuna studio, where many classics from the era were made, while Lily Franky has fun playing a director with more than a passing resemblance to the great Yasujiro Ozu.

Yamada can’t resist making a few knowing winks to his audience, as when the young Go boasts that his own movies will offer an alternative to the genteel melodramas represented by Ozu’s generation, with their downbeat tales of disappointment and stifled emotions. When the budding filmmaker gets a chance to make his directorial debut, the production flames out spectacularly, but also contains the seeds of his eventual redemption.

Moving between past and present, “It’s a Flickering Life” ends up stretching itself thin. A love triangle involving the younger Go, Yoshiko (Mei Nagano) and Terashin (Yojiro Noda) never generates much interest. The elderly characters’ travails are also a bit rushed, especially when the story pivots during its final act to address the coronavirus pandemic and how it has affected cinemas.

Yamada’s heart is in the right place, but the whole thing doesn’t quite gel. Even the nostalgia-trip sections are considerably less substantial than the director’s earlier ode to Japanese cinema, “Final Take: The Golden Age of Movies” (1986).

It’s hard to watch without imagining how Shimura might have played the lead role. Perhaps he would have brought the acid touch that Sawada’s performance lacks, but realism was never the point here. As Go tells his cinephile grandson: Films are about the heart, not the head.

He could be pinching a line from Yamada himself.

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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