Note: This is an import title in NTSC format from Hong Kong. Though available online and at many specialty shops throughout America, a region-free or Region 3/NTSC player is required when viewing this title.
Final Take (Kinema no tenchi, or "Heavenly Cinema World," 1986) is Japanese director Yoji Yamada's love letter to 1930s moviemaking. A Shochiku production set at the company's own Kamata Studios during the transition from silent film to talkies, it traces one woman's journey from extra to leading player. It's made with obvious affection and movie buffs will find it fascinating, but it plays as if Yamada was eager to make a film about the era but couldn't settle on a story or tone for his picture.
Narimi Arimori (2002's Graveyard of Honor) stars as Koharu Tanaka, a young woman whose pretty features win her an invitation to join Shochiku as a New Face, a contract extra and bit player hired with an eye on building her up to bigger roles. At Shochiku she finds her work alternately thrilling and frustrating, and gradually hones her craft and falls in love with assistant director and aspiring screenwriter Kenjiro Shimada (Kiichi Nakai). Mild Spoiler When Shochiku's leading actress, Sumie Kawashima (Keiko Matsuzaka) suddenly elopes, Koharu is thrust like Ruby Keeler into the spotlight, making her starring debut in the company's big New Year release, a version of Floating Weeds.
Final Take is a curious picture in many respects. It's set at a real-life film company, with characters obviously based on real people, yet everyone is fictionalized, including the great Yasujiro Ozu, who here becomes Yasujiro Ogata (Ittoku Kishibe, an inspired casting choice). This may have been done for legal reasons, or perhaps Yamada and co-writers Yoshitaka Asama, Taichi Yamada and Hisashi Inoue were trying to free themselves up dramatically, but mostly the effect is forced.
Odder still is the character of Koharu's father, Kihachi (Kiyoshi Atsumi), a widower and washed-up itinerant actor in the Floating Weeds mold himself, and an alcoholic. Atsumi, of course, was beloved by Japanese audiences for his 48 features as the Chaplinesque Tora-san, and virtually all the regular actors from that series, which was also directed and co-written by Yamada, make appearances here. But again the effect is only forced and distracting, especially since Atsumi is permitted one long scene with a junk man that's virtually lifted wholecloth out of any number of Tora-san movies, while co-star Chieko Baisho plays a motherly neighbor in the very same mold as Tora-san's nurturing if long-suffering sister.
At the same time, the film's outrageously maudlin climax is straight out of a mid-'30s melodrama. Indeed, most of the scenes of Koharu at home are less real, more artificial than those at the studio. All of this may have been Yamada's intent, in effect to give his own movie the flavor of a '30s Shochiku production, but maybe not. Conversely, other scenes are played far too broadly, as if Yamada couldn't settle on an overall tone. Temperamental stars, harried directors and the like are depicted in much the same broad manner as those in Singin' in the Rain (1952).
Production-wise, the film is singularly well made. Although all of the movies we see being shot seem absurdly under-staffed, Final Take captures the period quite well, especially in the movies-within-the-movie recreations which, rare for such things, are very well done. Even a newly-shot slapstick comedy sequence (embarrassingly adapted from Kenjiro's originally serious scenario) is actually quite funny. The film also does a marvelous job capturing the bustle of Tokyo's Asakusa entertainment district, and includes several scenes of benshi (silent film narrators) performing before enchanted audiences.
Final Take also does a good job putting studio life into historical context. The invasion of China by the militarist government and the ruthless crackdown on Japanese Communists plays an important part in the story, which also includes a visit to the studio by Empress Akiko (Kaori Momoi, now shooting Memoirs of a Geisha).
Better still, the film boasts a superlative cast. Beyond those already mentioned, Chishu Ryu, a veteran of that era, appears briefly as the studio janitor, while former Crazy Cats Hajime Hana and Senri Sakurai have several good scenes as a movie-loving jailbird and studio gatekeeper, respectively. Koshiro Matsumoto (not the same Kabuki actor who appeared in numerous historical epics in the 1960s) makes an appearance as the head of the studio, while Ken Tanaka, so bland and superficially handsome in Godzilla 1985, plays Shochiku's bland and superficially handsome leading star.
Video & Audio
Final Take is presented in non-anamorphic widescreen, cropped to reflect its original aspect ratio of 1.85:1. The image is worn but okay, typical of the inferior masters provided to Hong Kong distributor Panorama by Shochiku. One big problem: both the Japanese Movie Database and the DVD itself list a 135-minute running time, but in fact this master, possibly an "international cut," runs 116 minutes, some 20 minutes shorter, so be warned. Not having seen the long version, this reviewer has no idea what scenes were cut, but even at 116 minutes the film plays overlong anyway, though it does end abruptly. The disc also claims to be stereo, but sure sounded like ordinary mono to me. Optional Chinese and English subtitles are included. The English subs are fairly good, and are positioned in such a way that those wanting to adjust the image for their 16:9 sets will still be able to read them.
Common with Panorama's Shochiku titles, extras are limited to a director's biography and filmography (in both Chinese and English), both repeated in the CD-shaped booklet included with the disc.
As a comedy, Final Take isn't nearly as funny as another behind-the-scenes movie made at about the same time, Kinji Fukasaku's Fall Guy (Kamata koshin kyoku, 1982; it's also known as Kamata March). As a document of the era, it's neither as insightful as Kaneto Shindo's great documentary on Mizoguchi, The Life of a Film Director (1975), nor as historically immediate as Kon Ichikawa's Film Actress (Eiga joyu), made the following year. But Final Take, despite its dramatic instability, has a lot to offer not just those with an interest in Japanese cinema, but moviemaking in general.
Stuart Galbraith IV is a Los Angeles and Kyoto-based film historian whose work includes The Emperor and the Wolf -- The Lives and Films of Akira Kurosawa and Toshiro Mifune. His new book, Cinema Nippon will be published by Taschen in 2005.