Wednesday, July 18, 2012

Japan Cuts ’12: The Woodsman and the Rain

If you’re wondering where Harrison Ford and Tommy Lee Jones’ fifty-plus mojo went, it’s been in Japan with Kôji Yakusho.  While American audiences might know him best as the salaryman who cuts a rug in Shall We Dance?, nobody working in film today is more credible as a middle-aged man you do not want to mess with.  His hardnosed everyman charm is also perfectly suited to the gently humanistic comedy of Shȗichi Okita’s The Woodsman and the Rain (trailer here), which screens as the centerpiece of this year’s Japan Cuts and a key selection of their Focus on Kôji Yakusho retrospective sidebar.

If you have seen Takashi Miike’s 13 Assassins, you know what a dynamic presence Yakusho can be in an action-driven film.  If you haven’t, the Japan Society will give you an opportunity this Saturday.  It’s kind of awesome, but Woodsman is too, in a very different way.  Here Yakusho plays a sixty year-old lumberjack and you would not want to be a tree in his sites.  He is not a superhero though.  Having survived a health scare, Yatsuhiko Kishi (Yatsu-san) can no longer eat sweets.  The widower’s relationship with his slacker son Koichi is strained at best.  However, he can now predict precipitation with uncanny accuracy.  Given the title, this ability will obviously come into play at some point, but wisely nobody in the film belabors it.

Kishi is pretty set in his routine, until a film crew comes to town.  Much to his own surprise, he finds himself shuttling about a nervous assistant director and a socially awkward twenty-something in search of locations for their zombie film.  That quiet kid turns out to be Koichi Tanabe, the first time director with massive confidence issues.  Yes, he has the same first name as Kishi’s son, but Okita never overplays that card either.

Before you know it, Kishi is deeply involved in the shooting of Tanabe’s dubious b-movie.  Many of these scenes are essentially played for laughs, but in an earthy, understated way.  Still, for genre film fans, how can you resist a film about lumberjacks and movie-zombies?

Woodsman is a perfect film to anchor the Yakusho showcase.  His performance is rich, nuanced, and deeply felt.  He is a good sport, willing to look slightly ridiculous at times, yet he always maintains his dignified bearing.  As the Koichis, both Shun Oguri and Kengo Kora grow on viewers, subtly but convincingly showing their characters grow up as the film progresses.

Not exactly bittersweet, but certainly not compulsively cheerful either, Woodsman is ultimately wholly satisfying, in a rugged, down-to-earth way.  It is a great example of Yakusho’s powerful screen presence as well as a wistfully wise bit of storytelling.  Very highly recommended, The Woodsman and the Rain screens this Saturday at the Japan Society as this year’s Japan Cuts centerpiece (featuring an intro and Q&A with the man himself), but good luck getting in.  It is already sold out, so if you do not have your ticket booked, you’re flying stand-by.  Also very highly recommended, tickets for 13 Assassins and Shall We Dance? are currently available on Saturday (7/21).