My Sons: Japanese Yoji Yamada’s Contemporary Family Melodrama

Yoji Yamada’s My Sons, a contemporary family melodrama about generation gap in an ever-changing Japan, belongs to the same tradition as Ozu’s classic Tokyo Story (l953), thematically if not stylistically.

The film’s universal concerns, mild humor, and charisma of Masatoshi Nagase (who starred in Jim Jarmusch’s Mystery Train) should help it in fests and in big cities where there is built-in interest in Japanese cinema.

Rentaro Minuni gives a stellar performance as Akio Asano, a patriarchal widower who lives alone in the country. The aging man simply cannot understand the departure of his two sons to Tokyo. Immensely proud of his rural roots, he sees their move as betrayal. Indeed, the otherwise very different sons share a common desire to gain independence from their strong-headed father.

Pic begins at Akio’s village with a big family gathering commemorating the first anniversary of his wife’s death. Tetsuo (Nagase), the youngest and a “problem” child, upsets his father when he arrives at the temple late wearing a dirty shirt. Worried about their father’s solitary life and deteriorating health, the children suggest that he move to Tokyo and live with his eldest son Tadashi (Ryuzo Tanaka), who works in a big firm. But the stubborn man insists he can still fend for himself.

Most of the narrative deals with the adventures of Tetsuo in Tokyo. Determined to prove himself, he takes a hard physical job at a steel factory. Tetsuo also meets a girl, Seiko (Emi Wakui), who seems to be too shy–until it is revealed she is hearing-impaired. The dignified manner in which she is presented and the courtship that ensues between the youngsters are two of pic’s most charming highlights.

Second half revolves around the father’s visit in Tokyo for a WWII army veterans’ reunion. In an interestingly contrast to American youth movies, which always take the children’s point of view, My Son sides with the father, preaching for a reconciliation between the generations. Pic’s most amusing scene is the father’s introduction to Tetsuo’s girl. He literally comes to life–drinking beer and singing in the middle of night–after she promises to marry his son.

Yamada, best-known for his popular Tora-san films, the world’s longest running theatrical film series (44 features), directs with a remarkably firm but unostentatious hand. His treatment of the material is functional and matter-of fact. Like Ozu, he shoots many of the family scenes with stationary camera from a low angle, though this device is not used consistently. Leisurely-paced and restrained pic lacks the high voltage and excessive melodramatics of similarly themed American movies. Though preaching for old family values, pic is decidedly unsentimental.

Lenser Tetsuo Takaba has made a handsome film, with crisp shots of Tokyo’s towering skyscrapers, uniform apartment buildings, small and cramped apartments, busy and noisy streets, and traffic jams–all symbols of Big City life. The visual contrast between city and country is aided by Matsumara’s soft evocative music, which is particularly effective in the transition of scenes.

At the end, when Asano goes back to his beloved country house, he carries with him one important present–a fax machine. In this ironic turn, My Sons suggests the inevitable penetration of modern technology into the smallest and most remote of villages.