One of the great undiscovered films of Japanese cinema, Yoji Yamada's A Distant Cry from Spring (1980) is near or at the top of an incredible body of work that includes Twilight Samurai (2002), Home from the Sea (1972) and, of course, the 48-film "Tora-san" series. The film is very nearly a prequel to another of Yamada's best films, The Yellow Handkerchief (1977) and similar in a lot of ways to George Stevens' Shane (1953), albeit set in present-day Hokkaido and minus the Van Heflin and Jack Palance characters. The film is so wonderful that it overcomes the needlessly poor video master licensor Shochiku provided Hong Kong distributor Panorama.
Tamiko Kazami (Chieko Baisho, Sakura in the "Tora-san" movies) is a young widow and mother living in rural Hokkaido, where she runs a small dairy farm with help from her ten-year-old son, Takeshi (Hidetaka Yoshioka). One stormy night, the two are visited by a handsome but mysterious stranger (Ken Takakura) who, after helping out in the birth of a new calf, offers to work at the farm: he doesn't care about the pay, asking only for room (in the nearby barn) and board. Desperate for help, Tamiko cautiously agrees.
Fatherless Takeshi quickly bonds to the man, Kosaku Tajima, and - though it's never discussed - it's clear that Tamiko very gradually falls in love with the hard-working if enigmatic man of few words. But it's also clear something's not quite right, that Kosaku is hiding something and that gets in the way. When his brother (Mizuho Suzuki) suddenly shows up to visit, Tajima's story begins to become clear (to the audience), but how will it impact his future with Tamiko and Takeshi?
A Distant Cry from Spring (Haruka naru yama no yobigoe, or "A Distant Cry from the Mountains") is a great film on many levels. During his "Tora-san" period, 1969-1993, director Yoji Yamada occasionally made other films, which for the most part focus on working class types struggling with difficult occupations and daily lives often far from Japan's big cities. (He's especially fond of the country's northern and southernmost extremes: Hokkaido and Okinawa / Amami Oshima.) One of Yamada's achievements in all of these films is how vividly he captures the atmospheres of these out-of-the-way places, and how completely believable his actors are portraying his working poor characters and how convincing they are in their demanding occupations.
In Home from the Sea actress Chieko Baisho was utterly believable as a woman who with her husband hauled rocks down the Inland Sea in an outdated, frankly dangerous boat. Here, as a struggling dairy farmer, Baisho is so convincing that non-Japanese audiences not familiar with the actress might reasonably assume she was a non-professional actress, a real local farmer selected by Yamada for his film. His script (with usual collaborator Yoshitaka Asama) is especially smart in dramatizing the working relationship between Tamiko and Tajima; he's worked on a ranch in the past, but she's more experienced in dairy farming, so that she has to teach him how to do some but not all tasks, and those he hasn't done before he's quick to learn.
Likewise, although the film is essentially a love story, it never descends into melodrama, partly because of this consistently realistic approach. They eat separately (long after she feels it necessary for him to eat outside her home), and as a precaution she keeps her door locked at night. Late in the film he invites her to his space for coffee (his brother has given him a coffeemaker), which is a Big Deal, a rare moment of intimate conversation.
Although the film has great emotional impact it's not at all sentimental. For example, Tamiko's determination to keep the struggling dairy farm going isn't because she's reluctant to part with something so connected to her late husband. In a revealing scene she tells her brother-in-law's family that her husband had in fact advised her to sell it off if anything ever happened to him. She wants to keep it simply because she can't think of any other practical way to make a living.
This film and The Yellow Handkerchief marked a major turning point in the career of Ken Takakura, an actor whose long career might be likened to contemporary Clint Eastwood. Up to then, Takakura was best known for his world-weary yakuza characters, in films like the Abashiri Prison and Battles without Honor and Humanity film series for Teruo Ishii and Kinji Fukasaku. The acclaim brought him for his work in Yamada's films (Takakura and Baisho won Japanese Academy Awards for Best Actor and Actress) changed the direction of his career, and since then he's mainly starred in these sorts of intimate character studies, often playing lonely, aging working class types haunted by dark secrets and filled with regret for past mistakes.
Long before Eastwood surprised and disarmed audiences in Million Dollar Baby with unexpected and quite moving expressions of vulnerability - from a heretofore all but invulnerable screen persona - veteran tough guy Takakura does pretty much the same thing here at the very end, and the payoff is really something to watch and experience.
This was Hidetaka Yoshioka's second film and his first major role. Immediately after this he'd take over the role of Sakura and Hiroshi's son in the Tora-san's series, which over the last 22 films would shift more and more attention to that character, a lovesick and troubled teenager who's inherited some of Uncle Tora-san's genes. In A Distant Cry from Spring, Yoshioka gives one of the best children's performances ever in a Japanese film; only Terumi Niki and Yoshitaka Zushi's incredible work in Kurosawa's Red Beard is superior.
The supporting cast is flawless as well. Crazy Cats founder Hajime Hana (who starred in 1964's Honest Fool, one of Yamada's first successes, and an early candidate for the part of Tora-san) is very funny as pushy, obnoxious Abuta, a wealthy local businessman who, until Tajima's arrival, had been the only man to show any interest in Tamiko. What at first appears to be a cliched character evolves into something else entirely. There's quite a payoff with his character, too.
Kiyoshi Atsumi, Tora-san himself, has a very funny cameo as a cheery bovine fertilization expert whose on-the-job demonstration shocks Tamiko's cousin (Tetsuya Takeda) and new bride (Hanoko Kono). Takeda, more annoying than endearing in Yamada's other films, comes off well this time out.
Real-life animal expert Dr. Masanori Hata (later the director of the popular Japanese movie bastardized as The Adventures of Milo & Otis) is authoritatively cast as a veterinarian.
Video & Audio
Although Shochiku's Japanese DVD of A Distant Cry from Spring is 16:9 widescreen (but without English subtitles), they once again declined to provide Hong Kong distributor Panorama Entertainment with a clone of this transfer. Instead, Panorama got stuck with a vastly inferior 4:3 panned-and-scanned master that looks at least 20 years old (and may be closer to 30). It should be noted that for decades letterboxing has been the standard for Japanese broadcasts; probably less than 5% of 'scope movies play panned-and-scanned on Japanese television, so this transfer really must be ancient.
Although certainly Tetsuo Takaba's (not "Takahane") compositions suffer, the drama, fortunately, does not. If either a) the film were available with English subtitles in a better form; or, b) if it seemed likely that a U.S. label were to snap up the rights to this title in the foreseeable future, this reviewer would not be giving this a "Highly Recommended" rating, but since neither is the case, A Distant Cry from Spring is worth seeking out than not seen at all.
The English subtitles are adequate. At times they get several beats ahead of themselves (and later lag behind a few beats too many), but otherwise are okay, as is the mono soundtrack. Optional Chinese subtitles are included as well.
As usual, the lone supplement is a skimpy director's biography and filmography (in both Chinese and English), repeated in the CD-shaped booklet included with the disc.
An extraordinary delicate, moving portrait of hard-working yet quietly suffering and lonely people that's and filled with honest and revealing monologues, A Distant Cry from Spring is ripe for discovery in the west.
Stuart Galbraith IV is a Kyoto-based film historian whose work includes The Emperor and the Wolf - The Lives and Films of Akira Kurosawa and Toshiro Mifune and Taschen's forthcoming Cinema Nippon. Visit Stuart's Cine Blogarama here.