Ready for some full- on Japanese sentimentality? Superlative tough guy Ken Takakura takes us deep into heartbreak territory in search of a happy ending. Yoji Yamada’s Hokkaido road epic throws together a trio of ‘drifters of the heart’ to see if they can solve each other’s romantic dilemmas.
The Yellow Handkerchief
1978 / Color / 2:35 widescreen / Street Date November 14, 2017 / Shiawase no kiiroi hankachi / Available from the Twilight Time Movies Store / 24.95
Starring: Ken Takakura, Chieko Baisho, Kaori Momoi, Tetsuya Takeda, Hisao Dazai, Makoto Akatsuka, Mari Okamato.
Cinematography: Tetsuo Takaha
Film Editor: Iwao Ishii
Original Music: Masaru Sato
Written by Yoji Yamada, Yoshitaka Asama
Produced by Toru Najima
Directed by Yoji Yamada
Americans can experience difficulty navigating the sometimes- confusing sphere of Japanese humor. Cartoons, children’s films, action movies often seem crude or cruel, but can also be unexpectedly delicate. And some cultural barriers are still there — nobody forgets the neighbor in the classic Tokyo Story who harangues a recent widower about the tragedy of his condition — it’s meant to play as solicitous concern. The best advice I’ve received to understand ordinary Japanese social interaction and humor is to see Yoji Yamada’s Tora-San movies, about the everyday problems (often sentimental) of an ordinary, unprepossessing ‘salaryman.’ Yoji Yamada’s series numbered 48 full features, starring the same actor as Tora-San; they’re Japanese tradition.
The writer-director had time for other projects as well, and one of the best known is 1978’s The Yellow Handkerchief. Sourced from a short story by journalist Pete Hamill, it’s an undisguised romantic road movie. Unhappy people meet on the highway and learn some life lessons together. That’s of course the starting point for umpteen-thousand road movies, from dippy romantic comedies to Kerouac- like critiques of society. Yellow distinguishes itself by not selecting characters that look like movie stars, well, at least in the case of two of the three travelers. By the time that we realize we’re heading for heart-tugging revelations, it’s too late — we simply want to know how this trio sorts itself out.
Jilted in love, the awkward young worker Kinya (Tetsuya Takeda) shocks his few associates by quitting his job, buying a new car and heading out on an aimless road trip that involves a ferryboat jump to Japan’s northernmost island, Hokkaido. Both clumsy and terminally un-cool (he wears a dorky cowboy hat), Kinya nonetheless succeeds in offering a ride to Akemi (Kaori Momoi), a mixed-up (yet self-possessed) young woman on the run from a cheating boyfriend. Kinya successfully talks Akemi into sharing lodgings, and then crudely puts the make on her. She must like him on some level, because she sticks with him for more traveling. They soon pick up a somewhat mysterious handsome stranger, the reserved Yusaku Shima (Japanese superstar Ken Takakura). The soulful Yusaku knows what’s going on but only tells his companions to stop arguing; more than once he must be dissuaded from excusing himself from the group and going on alone.
The trio’s destination shifts from day to day but when Kinya and Akemi learn more about Yusaka they become invested in his story. As a young man Yusaka was something of a thug, but he straightened himself out and became a coal miner. He met Mitsue (Chieko Baisho), a grocery checker and they began a life together. But disappointment over a miscarriage caused Yusaka to get drunk, and he killed a man during a fight. On his way to serve six years in prison, he told Mitsue to forget him. Now on his release just a day or two before, he has mailed her a postcard. It asks if she still wants him back. If she does, she’s to fly a yellow handkerchief on a mast-like staff outside their hilltop house in the mining village. Kinya and Akemi must repeatedly convince Yusaka to continue his trip to the village. He set Mitsue free six years ago, and has no reason to believe she’ll still be 1) living in the same spot, and 2) unmarried. As they approach the village, things become very tense . . .
The Yellow Handkerchief works because it keeps things simple. The trio of fellow travelers doesn’t share any particularly extraordinary adventures — it’s simply interesting to see how they try to be on their best behavior when doing simple things like taking photos on a beach. Akemi is something of a mystery, as she’s very sensitive, yet sees potential in the immature, self-deluding Kinya. He works so hard to project an image of something he’s not, that he makes himself into a clumsy fool. The one ‘lost in translation’ aspect of the movie is that Kinya’s initial behavior toward Akemi warrants her turning him in to the cops. Yet she seems determined to wait him out, as if the fellow will turn into a decent man. Perhaps her instincts are correct, for the Kinya underneath the lame posturing is decent enough.
A 2008 remake gives three American travelers a vintage convertible, and the road they travel is packed with glorious landscapes. Yamada has Kinya buy a pretty ugly subcompact. As I recall, in 1978 ugly cars seemed to be the norm. The three of them squeeze in to trundle down long highways that look mostly the same. Some of the towns and beaches are pretty, but most of the trip takes them through non-photogenic landscapes.
Ken Takakura is the big draw here. The former action star (The Yakuza) reminds me of certain French actors that specialized in crime pictures – at them moment I’m thinking of Serge Reggiani, Lino Ventura and of course Jean Gabin. All any of them has to do is stare in a single close-up and we can feel the entire burden of their misspent life. In the flashbacks, the younger Yusaka never gets an emotional handle on the good fortune he shares with his sweetheart Mitsue. We immediately perceive Mitsue as the committed type, with an unhappy background of her own behind her. Yasuda initially seems a man of few words, but his traveling companions draw him out. He tries to counsel Kinya about his boorish behavior with Akemi. When Yasuda finally explains the predicament he’s gotten himself into, the two younger people are transfixed, and find something to make them forget their own problems.
The show sneaks its way to a highly melodramatic finish of the kind expected in old-movie weepies, or the tear-jerking ode to romantic sacrifice “John Riley.“ As much as I love that ancient folk song, after the laughter and tears subside, the ‘gallant’ John Riley better have a winning excuse ready to explain his absence. Things like that do happen in real life, but rarely do they end like fairy tales. Yoji Yamada judges things ‘just so’ to give The Yellow Handkerchief the understated tone it needs to succeed as a weepie. The universally identifiable predicament certainly bridges cultural barriers. What we remember are Ken Takakura and Cheiko Baisho’s enduring faces, hoping beyond hope. Yes, this is pure sentiment, and Yamada doesn’t mind stretching out the conclusion for a few extra heart-sobs.
The Twilight Time label again detours from its studio licensing norm for this Blu-ray of The Yellow Handkerchief. A glowing Shochiku logo brings classic Japanese cinema up to date. The image and sound are perfect for a show that appears to be a visual road guide to the Northern reaches of the island nation — we keep hearing that it’s a lot colder where they are, than back in Tokyo.
The only extra this time out is Julie Kirgo’s liner essay, which brings up the ‘yellow ribbon’ theme in ’70s America. In my personal bias I always associated the idea with stubborn Vietnam denial — some mysterious force took our valiant men away, but faith will bring them back, like the tooth fairy.
Yoji Yamada also directed the impressive The Twilight Samurai, which is an interesting costume picture, not Ms. Kirgo’s autobiography. Other exceptionally interesting modern Japanese films imported for disc by Twilight Time are the gentle fable The Little House and the historical thriller The Emperor in August.
Reviewed by Glenn Erickson
The Yellow Handkerchief
Movie: Very Good
Supplements: Julie Kirgo liner notes.
Deaf and Hearing Impaired Friendly? YES; Subtitles: English (feature only)
Packaging: One Blu-ray in Keep case (Region A only)
Reviewed: November 24, 2017
Text © Copyright 2017 Glenn Erickson