Tuesday, November 20, 2007

You Can't Go Home Again

Jutai (Traffic Jam)
Japan, 1991, 108 minutes
in Japanese with English subtitles
Director: Mitsuo Kurotsuchi
Cast: Kenichi Hagiwara, Hitomi Kuroki, Eiji Okada

Digging through my Fibber McGee's Closet of unwatched videos, I came across this celluloid chestnut I picked up for $1.99 at Blockbusters but had never watched. It looked like a family-oriented commentary on modern Japanese life, one that I could give to my girlfriend's Japanese mother to watch over the holidays without worrying about disturbing scenes of bayoneting or sword-slashing, as featured in the bulk of my Asian film collection (needless to say I couldn't loan her T. F. Mou's gory Black Sun: The Nanking Massacre!) Fed up with all the Operation Orange Cone- and Department of Public Works-related street repairs that have torn up downtown Baltimore, I guess I wanted to see how the Japanese handled gridlock. Other than one of the worst soundtracks in history - featuring the blanched whitebread warblings of Kenny G. - I was not disappointed. In fact, I loved this bumpy road movie about the difficulties a salaryman's family encounters trying to make a 300-mile trek from Tokyo to a remote island in the Inland Sea in time to celebrate the New Year holiday with the salaryman's parents (whom he hasn't seen in five years) - and the sentimental ending had ole-softy-me near tears. But I didn't realise what a gem this film was until I started Googling and learned more about its stars.

The film stars Kenichi Hagiwara (pictured right), whose most famous film role was as Katsuyori Takeda
in Akira Kurosawa's Kagemusha (1980). According to Wikipedia, Hagiwara (real name: Keizo Hagiwara) was a 1960s pop singing star known to fans as Sho-Ken, the lead singer of "bad boy" group The Tempters. Sho-Ken apparently more than lived up to the Bad Boy image in his personal life. In 1983, he was found guilty of drug possession, in 1984 he was busted for drunk driving, and in 2004 he was convicted of attempted blackmail for making threatening phone calls to film producers about getting his fee. In other words, the perfect hothead to portray a cranky father/husband frustrated by traffic jams! (Click here to see a YouTube capsule of his career.)

But what else do we expect of rock stars than to be wild? Checking YouTube, I discovered a bunch of clips of The Tempters, who were purveyors of what the Japanese press called the '60s "Group Sound" or GS (a term allegedly coined for the genre by Blue Comets rocker Jackey Yoshikawa because of the difficulty his countrymen have pronouncing the R's in "Rock 'n' Roll"!) One reviewer compared them to The Left Banke, with "less melancholy and more hooks," while others called them the Japanese Rolling Stones. You'd never suspect Sho-Ken of being a bad boy by this promotional clip of the band:

And now I have to see this cool-looking movie that features The Tempters singing "Tell Me More"!:

Sho-Ken's wife in Jutai is portrayed by the lovely Hitomi Kuroki (real name: Shoko Ijichi, pictured at left), who may have the skinniest legs in the history of Japanese cinema (full disclosure: this is a turn-on, not a criticism!). I thought she looked familiar but couldn't place her until I checked the Internet Movie DataBase and discovered that she played the mother in Ringu director Hideo Nakata's Honogurai Mizu No Soko Kara (Dark Water, 2002). Nakata must like her because she's also in his newest film, Kaidan (2007), which looks to be a ghost story anthology in the style of Masaki Kobayashi's 1964 classic Kwaidan. Predominantly a TV actress, Miss Kuroki's filmography, though sparse, is impressive - especially in the horror genre. She appeared in the Japanese TV series Ringu: Saishusho (1999), as well as in Sada (1998), a film about the real-life geisha Sada Abe, who in 1936 strangled her lover and cut off his penis. Sada's story was previously filmed to notorious effect in Nagisa Oshima's controversial Ai No Corrida (In the Realm of the Senses, 1976) and Noboru Tanaka's "pinku eiga" version Jitsuroku Abe Sada (A Woman Called Sada Abe, 1975). These roles were, to say the least, the polar opposite of the meek, quiet, obedient Japanese wife and mother presented in Jutai. She also provided the voice of Helen Parr/Elastigirl/Mrs. Incredible in the Japanese dub of The Incredibles. But I don't think she's ready for voice-over work just yet; as the following pictures of her show, she still has leading lady looks at age 47:

Make up your mind: Hitomi still gorgeous? Yo!

Jutai: Film Reviews

Ok, about the film! Here's a review of this rarely screened (or written about) film from All Movie Guide's Jonathan Crow (full disclosure: Jonathan is no relation to Jim Crow):
During 1980s, at the height of Japan's economic power, the furasato (or hometown) boom struck. White-collar workers slaving for 12 hours a day only to face a two-hour commute began to fantasize of a simpler way of life in the rural countryside. Director Mitsuo Kurotsuchi parodies this phenomenon with Jutai. Former rock icon Kenichi Hagiwara plays service industry everyman who hawks expensive toys to yuppies in Akihabara, Tokyo's electronics district. Taking a vacation during the holidays, he piles his wife (Hitomi Kuroki) and two children in the car to visit his own furasato. Living in an idyllic little isle off of the southern island of Shikoku, Grandpa (Eiji Okada), who's half senile, and Grandma (Emiko Higashi), who's beyond chipper, eagerly await the arrival of their son and grandchildren. Unfortunately, between Tokyo and Shikoku is a traffic jam that would put the one in Jean-Luc Godard's Weekend to shame. Soon a five-day trip to a rural paradise turns into an epic journey into motorist hell, replete with a weak-bladdered child, hopelessly bad navigation skills, and a near head-on collision with a truck full of pigs.

And here a review from TV Guide online:
Despite a tendency to veer from its comedic points and idle along familiar stretches of plot, JUTAI is a bittersweet examination of family ties that bind but unravel due to distances both physical and emotional.

After slaving for his company, a husband (Kenichi Hagiwara) is rewarded with a few days' downtime. Packing up his devoted wife (Hitomi Kuroki), daughter (Ayako Takarada), and son (Shingo Yazawa), he heads for his island hometown and the elderly parents who eagerly await his return. Trying to economize by driving instead of flying, the beleaguered family are caught in a traffic tie-up of epic proportions. Nerves fray as hotel accommodations are non-existent on this holiday weekend. The family keenly feels each new unplanned-for set-back as lost time that could have been spent with the grandparents who have spared no expense in anticipation of their arrival. After being ripped off for a parking fee due to sleeping in their car overnight, the husband tears into his wife for inefficient map-reading that steers them off course. Several near-accidents later, the husband blows a fuse and walks out temporarily. More time is wasted as the son becomes ill. Despite the erosion of allotted trip time, the father decides to complete the abortive journey and enjoy at least a few hours with his disappointed parents. Although the vacation has been altered by unforeseen circumstances, the family still treasures their too-brief bonding with the husband's aged parents.

Ambitiously indicting both the lack of spontaneity in contemporary Japanese culture and its age-old patriarchal biases, JUTAI is alternately a comic odyssey about modern times and a melancholy flip through an album of family pictures. At times recalling TWO FOR THE ROAD (1967), this gentle dramedy also delves into the marital tensions that rise to the surface when everyone is at their worst behavior; every insult exchanged is really a payback for some repressed emotion the couple is afraid to handle directly. It seems ungenerous to carp about JUTAI's drawbacks given that the American equivalent would be a vulgar road flick like NATIONAL LAMPOON'S VACATION (1983), but the film does suffer from slack direction and repetition of incidents. If the filmmaker desired to set a rhythm with these variations on a theme, he doesn't fully succeed.

In place of the bigger laughs that sharper pacing might have ensured, JUTAI concentrates on character; its finest achievements lie in documenting how unfairly the husband blames his wife for each incident he can't control and in conveying the parents' unquenchable yearning to touch base with their distant son. Pointing a satiric finger at a universe rushing too fast to take stock of the tolls progress extracts, JUTAI explores the dissolution of the family unit. This is a deeply felt film about literal and figurative distances people must bridge; in a happy ending, not only do the relatives enjoy a reunion, but also the husband and wife symbolically find their way back home to each other.

Related Links:
Jutai - Internet Movie DataBase
Kurokihitomi.net (Hitomi Kuroki's Japanese website)
The Tempters


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