Sunday, May 03, 2015

Japan Speaks Out: Our Neighbor, Miss Yae

She is the girl next door, both in a strictly literal sense and in terms what that expression typically evokes. Her sister is not, even though she has recently moved back in with Yae-chan’s family. Awkwardly, both sisters will become rivals for the attention of the same neighborhood boy in Yasujiro Shimazu’s Our Neighbor, Miss Yae, which screens as part of Japan Speaks Out, MoMA’s upcoming retrospective of early Japanese talking pictures.

Yae-chan is a high school upper-classman with eyes for Keitaro, a university freshman still living at home. He is not very romantically inclined, preferring to spend his free time eating and training his younger brother for the Koshien little league championship (memorably depicted in Umin Boya’s Kano). It would not surprise anyone if Yae-chan and Keitaro ended up together, which would be just fine with their respective parents. However, the return of Yae-chan’s older sister Kyouko complicates everything.

Arriving unexpectedly one night, Kyouko announces her intention to divorce her husband and move back in. Naturally, her parents are a bit flummoxed. Divorce is not unheard in their era, but it is still far from commonplace. Of course, they must be very mindful of appearances. Both fathers are lower middleclass middle-managers, who have not exactly distinguished themselves in their careers. Still, everyone gets used to having Kyouko around, except maybe Yae-chan, who becomes increasingly frustrated by Keitaro’s apparent interest in the older woman.

Shimazu was a master of Japanese shomin-geki (home dramas), predating the master of masters, Yasujiro Ozu. Neighbor will surely bring to mind the look and vibe of Ozu’s classic films, but it feels worldlier and less delicate. We need not place it in terrarium for its own protection. Frankly, there is no way this endearingly innocent family film would have passed Hollywood’s Hays Code.

In fact, Neighbor is a richly ambiguous film in a number of ways, particularly with respect to Kyouko’s marriage. While her parents assume she has left her unseen hubby out of general flightiness, Shimazu offers enough hints for Twenty-First Century Westerners to suspect there were darker, more abusive reasons Kyouko rejects her married life. As a result, it is hard to determine with certainty whether Neighbor is a feminist or anti-feminist film, but that makes it much more intriguing.

Yet, there is no better reason to watch and enjoy Neighbor than Yumeko Aizome’s wonderfully sensitive yet lively performance as Yae-chan. Just as Shimazu prefigures Ozu’s masterworks, her work is reminiscent of Setsuko Hara’s Norikos. She makes emotional resiliency something rather breezy and cute.

Neighbor is the sort of film that will inspire nostalgia in viewers for a time they maybe never really knew. There is something very appealing about the casual mi-casa-su-casa intimacy shared by the two families, even when unsettling reminders of what of the early 1930s meant in Japan obliquely seep in (like Keitaro’s German homework). There is a messiness to the resolution that also rings true to the unruliness of life. Very highly recommended, Our Neighbor, Miss Yae screens this Wednesday (5/6) and Saturday the 16th at MoMA, as part of the upcoming Japan Speaks Out film series.