Tuesday, November 06, 2007

オールウェイズ三丁目の夕日/Always: Sunset on 3rd Street

(movie review)

This movie came out a couple years ago in Japan, and apparently was a huge hit (although it flew below my radar). But this week the much anticipated sequel is coming out, and the posters and hype are everywhere.

Shoko said everyone at her job was talking about how wonderful this movie, so she borrowed the DVD from one of her co-workers and wanted to watch it last night. Fortunately it turns out the DVD version has English subtitles, which made it easier for me to follow.

This movie is set in Tokyo in 1958, and is heavily based on nostalgia for the Japanese people old enough to remember that period, and on collective nostalgia for those people who are not. Because Japan has undergone huge changes in the last 50 years, and 1950s Tokyo no longer exists, the film makes extensive use of CGI. But either CGI technology is getting better, or I'm just getting more used to it, because they were able to pull it off seamlessly. I couldn't even tell what was CGI and what was part of the backstage set.

Although the film takes place in Tokyo, one of the biggest cities in the world, the story in this movie has a real small town feel. Everyone on the block knows everyone else and is involved in each other's lives, the shop keepers know the customers on a first name basis, and in the local bar everyone knows your name and history. At times I felt like I was watching "Our Town" instead of a movie about Tokyo, but who knows? Maybe in the 1950s life was like that even in the big cities, in the days before computers and TV kept us shut up in our own house.

As such, the movie follows the interconnected stories of several different people on the block. There is an auto repair man who dreams of making it big, a girl from the countryside who comes to Tokyo for her first job, a lonely doctor who lost his wife and daughter during the war, a hack novelist and his frustrated literary ambitions who, through the convolutions of the plot, somehow ends up being stuck with a kid he has to take care of.

There's a lot of old Japanese 1950s pop songs in the background, which I enjoyed as a fan of Japanese oldies.

And throughout the movie many landmark events of the 1950s are shown: the first TV on the block, and all the excitement it causes, the first taste of coca-cola, the first refrigerator. (Even in the United States it is amazing to think how much life has changed in the past 50 years, but that's nothing compared to Japan which went from a 3rd world style of living after the war to the economic powerhouse in the 1980s. And underwent extensive Westernization at the same time.)

As with a lot of Japanese films, there's a bit of overacting in this movie. But when the director remembers to tone things down a notch, the film has a great subtle sense of comedy as well.

This is however primarily a Japanese drama, and Japanese drama's are famous for their sappiness. If you thought Hollywood could be sappy, it's got nothing on the Japanese film industry.

The first hour of the movie is spent setting everything up. Once all the characters are in position, the second hour is just one tear jerking scene after another. There was a soundtrack consisting of a soft piano and a violin chorus which would repeatedly start up, get louder and louder toward the climax, fade away, and then start up again in the next scene.

I'll admit I got a little misty eyed at points. It would take someone with a heart of stone to sit through this movie totally unmoved. But I felt manipulated afterwards.

I had a friend at Calvin, a philosophy student, who used to describe these kinds of movies as "emotional masturbation."
"Most people," he said to me, "watch movies just because they want to feel certain emotions. They want to laugh or they want to cry, and then they judge the success of the movie based on how it managed to manipulate their emotions, not on the actual content of the movie."

I know, I know, he was taking things too seriously. Nonetheless I've always hated movies that were sappy just for the point of being sappy. I mean if it was based on a true story, or a real social injustice, I can go along with it because it's manipulating emotions for a good cause.

(And you get extra points with me if you tone down the violins and orchestral music a little bit). But to create some sort of far fetched convoluted plot and then expect me to want to get weepy about it....I don't have time for that.

All of this is probably just a gender thing. I'm always worried I'm going to get in trouble when I generalize about gender and movies (even though everyone else in the world does it) but if there is a gender divide when it comes to movies and literature, I'd say my fascination with cheesy pulp science fiction, action flicks, old monster movies, and super hero comic books puts me safely on the male side of the divide. If you like these kind of sappy flicks, more power to you. You'll love this one.

The film ends with not quite all the loose ends wrapped up. I guess that's the set up for the sequel. I'll have to make a trip to the movie theater if I want to see how everything ends up.

Link of the Day
Chicago: Dozens of Berwyn High School Students Face Expulsion After Antiwar Sit-In

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