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Yoji Yamada's The Village
A beguiling drama from the writer-director of 2002's Twilight Samurai, Yoji Yamada's The Village (Harakara, 1975) is a very satisfying slice of life about rural life and the theater.
The film is set in Matsuo, a remote farming village in Iwate Prefecture in northern Honshu. On a snowy March evening, a youths' association, made up of local twenty-somethings, is visited by Hideko (Chieko Baisho), representative of a non-profit, Tokyo-based theatrical troupe. Hideko proposes that the group sponsor a performance of their touring musical, "Native Village." Staging the single performance, as well as paying for the troupe's transportation and boarding expenses, isn't cheap. Hideko tells them frankly that costs will run about 650,000 yen (several thousand U.S. dollars). If the show loses money the youths' association has to make up the deficit.
Though the group, led by its ineffectual president, Takashi (Akira Terao), takes an immediately liking to Hideko, it's also dubious of the huge financial responsibility. More than 800 tickets will need to be sold all in a tiny village of mostly rice farmers and unemployed miners. Eventually, the group is won over by Hideko's charm and perseverance, and preparations are made to stage the play.
During his still-unmatched run of 48 "Tora-san" movies from 1969-1993, director Yoji Yamada somehow found time to make 10 other films, of which The Village was one. Yamada consistently took full advantage of these sabbaticals from the formula of the (nevertheless always delightful) Tora-sans. For Home from the Sea (Kokyo, 1973), Yamada made a drama reminiscent of the Italian neorealists, if seen through the eyes of a 1970s Japanese movie. For The Village, Yamada has incorporated cinema verite elements, creative a vividly real portrait of both rural life and the less glamorous yet still exciting workaday world of the theater.
Yamada's script (with longtime collaborator and sometime director Yoshitaka Asama) touches several issues at once. The village is one common to modern Japan, a once relatively thriving mining and farming community undone by economic recession and the exodus of its younger generation -- a generation looking for a better life in the Big City. The youths' association is made up of young men and women who mostly wish they could leave, too, but can't for one reason or another. Takashi, for instance, is burdened with an older brother (Hisashi Igawa) with two small children whose wife recently died, and a recently widowed mother.
Council members like Takashi are active in the association because they have nothing better to do, and it functions more as a social activity than as an organization that ever actually accomplishes anything. But Hidekofs presence and drive inspires them to take a chance, to bring something to their village that its older residents especially have never had the opportunity to enjoy.
The play, as it turns out, is itself an ode to rural life, an elegy to a way of life vanishing from modern Japan, but also a celebration of what still remains. This strikes a strong and very emotional chord to everyone who sees the show, both old and young. Moreover, the experience changes not only the youths' association's board members, but their hard work in turn enlightens and inspires the acting troupe.
Akira Terao, best known abroad for his association with Kurosawa, especially for his starring parts in Dreams and Ame agaru / After the Rain, is fine as the introverted farmer who begins to assert his own identity thanks to Hideko's inspiration. As Hideko, Baisho is gives a typically excellent performance. She carries most of the film's dialogue, expertly expressing and reacting to the emotions of various characters. Also good is Mari Okamoto as a young woman with unrequited love for Takashi.
Tora-san himself, Kiyoshi Atsumi, makes a brief, non-speaking cameo as the village fire chief, while series regulars Masami Shimojo and Chieko Misami also appear, as does familiar character actor Shuji Otaki.
Video & Audio
As seems to be the case with all the Shochiku-owned titles licensed to Hong Kong's Panorama label, an old, non-anamorphic transfer seems to be the source provided for the DVD of The Village. Overall the image sharpness, color, and so forth are watchable, but well below major label standards. The mono sound is okay, and the English subtitles are acceptable with room for improvement (Chinese subtitles are also available). The aspect ratio question is problematic. English sources generally list this as a scope film, and is billed in some of Shochiku's own international brochures as in "Shochiku GrandScope," the company's moniker for 2.35:1 scope titles. Yamada himself shot all his Tora-san movies in 'scope; most, if not all, were filmed in Panavision. However, the DVD is matted to about 1.85:1 and seems correct. The framing and compositions looks just fine in this format, and no one is awkwardly sliced down the middle at the edge of the frame. By 1975 the Japanese film industry was getting out of 'scope moviemaking, this after nearly 20 years of making almost nothing but. It stands to reason that this would be 1.85:1 format (known as Vista- or VistaVision size in Japan) is correct.
The only extras are a short director's biography and a filmography, in both English and simplified Chinese, both of which are also reprinted in full in the CD-size booklet that accompanies the DVD.
Though its transfer isn't up to the level of labels like Home Vision or Japan's own Shochiku Home Video (which has not yet released this to DVD), The Village still comes highly recommended for anyone who loves Japanese cinema.
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.