In a poor 19th century rural Japanese village, everyone who reaches the age of 70 has to climb a nearby mountain to die. An old woman is getting close to the cut-off age, and we follow her last days with her family.
This starts out like a heist movie with the scheming and prep left out. We're thrown somewhere in the middle of it, a plan is being hatched then carried out in silence, who is being nicked and what are the stakes is never clear, except we're in a Turkish bath and a safe is being cracked and there's money inside. Then something goes wrong and again it's not quite clear what, one says that someone came by and saw them and it's as simple as that. This is not Kubrick's poodle, the random insignificant detail come to foil the perfect plan, like in The Killing, because the plan here is not perfect, it's all a bit hazy, like a crowd panics and no one is quite sure who they're running from or where to. Then the movie locks itself up in a basement where characters are forced to take sides and make decisions of moral weight, and out of the basement emerges an unlikely "couple on a run from the law", the bewildered getaway driver, a young guy who wants to go to America and become a jazz singer, and a prostitute who worked the Turkish baths.
The movie has potential to become something evocative and tragic, except Yoshida is not quite sure he wants it that way. Or like he doesn't want to play it at the emotionally earnest pitch it deserves. His protagonist is made to be a grimacing clown and Toru Takemitsu's otherwise percussive score breaks out in swinging jazz interludes that verge on parody. My other beef with the movie is Yoshida's choice of camera-work. The guy could frame a shot like it was nobody's business, most of it is exquisite here, but I don't like static cinema, cinema that stays in one point and observes from a distance. I like the camera to be excited about the situations it creates. There's a lot of despair and anguish and frustration here, a hopeless urge to "get out", it's a movie about people trying to escape the world around them who can't escape being who they are, and Yoshida is concerned about framing them against rows of trees or taking shots of them from the ceiling. It doesn't add up on a visceral level for me. It's all a bit too neat and clean in a "great cinema by the book" kind of way that made me miss Kinji Fukasaku's gritnik style. From how Yoshida's career unfolded after he left Shochiku, I'm guessing this was not a movie he wanted to make but rather had to, so he simply went ahead and did it the way he wanted to make a movie.
This is all framed against the backdrop of the Tokyo Olympics opening, Yoshida seems to be trying to say something about modernization in 60's Japan that is somehow lost in the translation, but it's the question "can you escape everything around you when you can't escape yourself?" that rings louder. Like the protagonist, the wannabe jazz singer who wants to go to America, who must become a gangster to get there and yet he's incompetent as one, his predicament is at once funny and tragic, and in the end Yoshida settles for both. Funny because he's caught the way he is, with fireworks celebrating the Olympics going off in the distance, and tragic because his dream is too honest and urgent and impossible (therefore more heartfelt because we all have impossible dreams) to become a spectacle for a cheering crowd of onlookers. Maybe Yoshida wants to suggest that a little something was lost on the way to a modern Japan, the kind of naive innocence with which only a young man can dream big dreams, and that its loss was quiet, brushed aside by spectacle and celebration. In the end no one escapes Japan and they'll be there to see it change, this is a pessimist movie and in a roundabout way Yoshida gives it the tragic conclusion it deserves.
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