Sunday, March 22, 2009

Nowhere To Go But Up

As the economic downturn continues to impact our society, many people who thought they had it made are discovering what happens when the floor gets pulled out from underneath them. First recorded in 1923 and made famous by the great blues singer, Bessie Smith, Jimmie Cox's Nobody Loves You When You're Down And Out offers a stark perspective on how quickly a big somebody can become a big nobody.

With people losing their fortunes, their pensions, their college tuition funds and every other form of nest egg you can imagine, this might be a good time to savor Alberta Hunter's rendition of Cox's classic.

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The importance of saving face runs deep within many Asian cultures, but shame never strikes at an opportune moment.  During this month's San Francisco Asian American Film Festival, special tribute was paid to Japanese filmmaker Kiyoshi Kurosawa (whose latest piece, Tokyo Sonata, opens in theaters this week).

In Kurosawa's new film, Teruyuki Kagawa stars as Ryuhei Sasaki, a Japanese salaryman who loses his middle management job after his company outsources work to China. Unwilling to admit to his wife Megumi (Kyoko Koizumi) that he is unemployed --  and unable to communicate with his children -- Ryuhei continues to dress and go to work on his usual schedule, clinging to a lifestyle in which conformity is the rule.

As he begins the humiliating ritual of waiting in unemployment lines and accepting free meals, he encounters his old friend Kuruso (Kanji Tsuda), a similarly unemployed former executive who has programmed his cell phone to ring six times an hour so he can angrily pretend that he is being interrupted with important business calls. One day, unbeknownst to Ryuhei, Megumi spots him waiting on line for a free meal. Although she realizes he is unemployed, as a dutiful wife she says nothing.

When Kuroso invites Ryuhei to his home for dinner, he uses the opportunity to humiliate Ruyhei by pretending that Ryuhei is an incompetent subordinate. While this may help Kuroso save face in front of his wife, it does little for Ryuhei's self esteem. Nor does Ryuhei's total inability to describe any marketable skills he might possess to an employment counselor.

Meanwhile, Ryuhei's older son, Takashi (Yu Koyanagi) has decided to enlist in the American military and go fight in Iraq against his parents wishes.  His younger son Kenji (Inowaki Kai), who has developed a curious knack for humiliating his teacher, has expressed a sudden, unexpected desire to take piano lessons.

When Ryuhei refuses to pay for piano lessons, the enterprising Kenji finds a discarded electronic keyboard in a junk pile and brings it home. Although the keyboard fails to produce any sound when he hooks it up to his home computer, Kenji is content to practice "playing piano." After he notices a sign advertising piano lessons given by an attractive young woman, Kenji diverts the funds he is given each month for school lunch money to study piano surreptitiously with Kaneko-San (Haruka Igawa), who discovers that the boy might just be a child prodigy.

As Ryuhei's self-image continues to deteriorate, he takes a job doing menial work in a shopping mall.  At the critical moment when Megumi crosses his path -- and sees her husband dressed in a bright orange janitorial uniform -- Ryuhei's world falls apart. What he does not know is that just three hours prior, Megumi's serenity at home had been shattered when a burglar broke into their house and forced her, at knifepoint, to drive his getaway car (a stolen vehicle). 

As a dutiful wife who has brought shame on her marriage by cooperating with the criminal Dorobo (Koji Yakusho), Megumi is unable to imagine any kind of future with her husband. A long night ensues as a demoralized Ryuhei stumbles around the city in a daze of shame, Megumi gives up any pretense of respectability and has sex with Dorobo in a beachfront shack, and Kenji (who has gotten into trouble with the law)  returns to a curiously empty home after spending a night in jail.

While the mortified father, contrite mother, and chastened son go through the motions of trying to eat a meal together, they must also deal with the news that the disillusioned Takashi has decided to stay in Iraq to fight on behalf of that country's natives. Finding it difficult to believe there is any way at all for them to start their miserable lives over, the parents come to the painful realization that, with nowhere to go but up, any hope of restoring the family's pride rests in Kenji's surprisingly talented hands. 

Several months later, at a local piano competition, Kenji's shocked parents hear their son perform for the very first time as he plays Debussy's Clair de Lune.  The sudden blossoming of lyricism ends the film on an oddly humbled, yet hopeful note.

Tokyo Sonata does an excellent job of capturing the crushing burden of nonconformity in Japanese culture. Whether it affects an unemployed husband, an unfaithful wife, a disillusioned soldier, a failed criminal, or a child whose artistic gift has gone unrecognized, the psychic toll inflicted on Japanese who fail to live up to society's expectations is visible in the eyes of each actor. Kagawa's doleful face conceals a walking time bomb whose rage finds few outlets. Kai's performance as Kenji has an innocent appeal. Here's the trailer:

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Kurosawa's 1998 film, License to Live, focuses on the plight of a young man who awakens at the age of 24 after spending 10 years in a coma. Although his body has matured into that of healthy young man, Yutaka (Hidetashi Nikijima) still thinks like an adolescent. When visited by Murota (Ren Osugi) -- the man responsible for the car accident which put Yutaka into a coma-- he discovers that the angry Murota can forgive neither himself nor his victim.

A lot of strange things happened while Yutaka was in a coma. The Berlin Wall came down, the Russian empire collapsed, his parents split up, and his sister, Chizuru (Kumiko Aso) went to live in the United States for a while. 

Upon his release from the hospital, he ends up in the custody of his father's old friend, Fujimori (Koji Yashuko), who runs a combination fish farm and junk yard on the land abandoned by Yutaka's dad. Confused and naive, he shows little appreciation for the hand job Fujimori has arranged for him to receive from a local prostitute. When asked to do something against his wishes, Yutaka squats like a cranky child and literally has to be dragged around.

Yutaka's attempts to reconnect with life as he knew it don't meet with great success. His friends from school have moved on. His father (Shun Sugata) is living abroad on some kind of permanent vacation and feels no responsibility to take care of his son. Yutaka's mother, Sachiko (Lily), barely recognizes her son after ten years. Not even his dream of acquiring a horse and opening up a combination milk bar and dude ranch pans out.

Yutaka's struggles to catch up with his biological clock and overcome his self-destructive behavior almost reach a happy ending when Fujimori returns after a long absence and suggests that Yutaka join him on a road trip. They even decide to bring the horse along with them. But, just as Yutaka is struggling to move some of the junk Fujimori has brought back from his latest trip, a refrigerator topples onto the young man. Despite Fujimori's efforts to rescue him, Yutaka starts to lose consciousness, wondering if it hasn't all been a dream. Fujimori assures him that his life was indeed real.

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Last week the performing arts suffered a terrible loss with the untimely death of Natasha Richardson. A beloved performer who was part of Great Britain's Redgrave theatrical dynasty, she was an accomplished actress who triumphed on stage and screen. In January, Richardson and her mother (Vanessa Redgrave) appeared together in a benefit performance of Stephen Sondheim's A Little Night Music for the Roundabout Theatre Company. Here is a radiant clip of her performance in the 1998 revival of Cabaret as Sally Bowles.

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