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Above all, this film is simply gorgeous to watch. For instance, nearly every frame of the opening wedding scene could stand on its own as a painting. The costumes are colourful, the cinematography dazzling, and the scenery breathtaking.
And this is important, because the river of the title is a strong character in the story. Nearly every scene begins with a generally spectacular establishing shot of the river, and this shot sets the tone. Serene in summer, raging and swirling during a typhoon, snow-flecked in winter.
Against these superb visuals, do the actors get a look in ? Definitely. Yoko Tsukasa turns in a wide-ranging performance, covering the entire 65-year span of the story, which spans three generations. Takahiro Tamura's life mission is to control and enhance the river, and his character complements the role of the river well. Tough guy Tetsuro Tamba resists the early temptation to be merely surly, and turns in a sensitive performance as the troubled brother-in-law. More limited is the beautiful Shima Iwashita as Hana's high-spirited daughter, who alternates between fuming and bawling, before mellowing somewhat after she experiences motherhood.
And make no mistake. This is very much a story about women. Each generation, men are around, but it is always the women at the centre of things.
The story, based on a very popular novel, manages to be both epic and personal, ordinary yet dramatic, tragic yet funny. And for anyone worried about the running time, fear not. The first hour proceeds at a fairly leisurely paced, but the remainder clips along at a good pace. The story is involving all the way. So much so that I would happily have sat through even an extra hour.
Plenty happens. The Meiji era, regarded as Japan's entry into the modern age, melts into the Taisho, including the foundation of the Japanese Communist Party, the rise of the power of the military which lead to the Manchurian takeover and then the war. The balance struck between these events, the politics, and their effects on the Shintani family, is very effectively achieved.
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