Wednesday, July 14, 2010

Japan Cuts ’10: About Her Brother

Tora-san, the traveling salesman and prodigal half-brother, was a comic staple of Japanese cinema from 1969 to 1995. All forty-eight films were scripted by Yoji Yamada, who also helmed all but two of them. Though much more serious in tone, it is hard not to recognize echoes of his beloved tramp in Yamada’s latest film, About Her Brother (trailer here), the closing film of the 60th Berlinale which also screens on the final night of this year’s Japan Cuts: Festival of Contemporary Japanese Film.

Koharu is a child of the 1970’s, who directly references the Tora-san series in the film’s introduction. However, she has an old-fashioned name thanks to her mother Ginko’s brother, her crazy Uncle Tetsuro. Though Tetsuro tried to be a responsible brother and uncle shortly after the death of Koharu’s father, he just was not cut out for it. Disappearing for long periods of time, Tetsuro usually pops up unexpectedly at the most inopportune times, to make a drunken spectacle of himself. When his surprise appearance at Koharu’s wedding thoroughly mars the ceremony, his family officially cuts their ties. Yet, Ginko still finds herself cleaning up after her younger brother.

While Brother’s storyline is strictly Melodrama 101, Yamada is a remarkably sensitive director, finding the dignity within each character. Indeed, the fitting symmetry of its conclusion nicely redeems the occasionally overly weepy on-screen drama. Yet, it is the film’s powerful central performance that really holds it all together.

Reuniting with the star of his highly recommended historical drama Kabei: Our Mother (one of last year’s ten best films), Yamada again casts Sayuri Yoshinaga as a single mother coping with trying times. A warm and elegant screen presence, her understated performance is truly touching. As her ne’er do well brother Tetsuro, Tsurube Shofukutei is not exactly subtle, but he has some poignant moments with Yoshinaga. While the role might be a bit underwritten, the endearing Yū Aoi also conveys Koharu’s maturation quite effectively.

Though not as deep or rewarding as Yamada’s recent historical dramas, Brother is a refreshingly earnest and even wholesome family film. Portraying decent, hard-working people doing the best that they can (and also good old Tetsuro), Brother has real heart. It screens this Friday (7/16) at the Japan Society, as the 2010 Japan Cuts sadly comes to a close.