Do period dramas have to be nostalgic? Movies Reviewed: Always: Sunset on Third Street; Memories of Matsuko; The King’s Speech

Posted in Academy Awards, Acting, Japan, Royalty, UK, Uncategorized by on December 10, 2010

This time of year lends itself to nostalgic family dramas, and this year is no exception. So if you feel like a blast from someone else’s past, there are three period and historical dramas running this weekend. But are movies set in the past necessarily nostalgic?

People tend to remember the families they grew up with, and thoughts of holidays past, especially when they only saw them once a year, so even if their memories are realistic, they are often coloured by a holiday perspective.

Always: Sunset on Third Street (2005)
Dir: Yamazaki Takashi (Based on the comic Always: San-chome no Yuuhi by Saigan Ryohei)

… is a pleasant neighbourhood drama set in a 50’s Tokyo neighbourhood.

It’s 1958. Mutsuko is a teenaged girl from Aomori going to her first job. She‘s the #6 kid in her very poor family. She arrives in Tokyo by train from up north just as the Tokyo Tower is being built. She thinks she’s going to be a secretary for the president of Suzuki Auto – a big car conglomerates, but soon discovers she’s going to be working as a repair mechanic for a tiny car repair shop owned by a Mr Suzuki. The boss is a short tempered lout given to dramatic bursts of anger. But she vows to work hard and learn the trade, and moves in with the small, nuclear family (there are no extended families in this movie; just friends and neighbours).

Meanwhile, across the street, an aspiring novelist, who was disowned by his upper class family and who runs a little candy stand, makes his living as a writer. He wants to be the next Akutagawa but in the meantime he writes boys adventure stories for pulp magazines. He agrees to take care of a kid, a stranger, Junnosuke, who’s an orphanned, depressed kid. He does it partly to impress a local bar girl. But soon these three lonely disparate people begin to form a sort of a family.

This movie is a good view of urban Tokyo in the 50’s, when the occupation and post-war period was over, but the booming economy of the 60’s had yet to take place. The scene rarely leaves that street where people rejoice in the first TV, or the first electric fridge…

Based on a comic book, the story is a little bit predictable, and the characters typical, but it’s a cute, nicely sentimental and not unrealistic story.The Characters are sometimes comic-like (the repair-shop owner, Suzuki, literally shakes with anger and destroys doors when he’s furious.)

And though definitely nostalgic in it’s view of the good old days where neighbours all knew and cared for one another, I wouldn’t exactly call it sugar-coated; it does show poverty and struggle, war deaths, geishas, alcoholism and snobbery. And this movie has a very distinctive look to it; shot with a strange retro feel, in colour, but with the appearance of a tinted black and white movie that has faded over the past half century. They appear to have used old B&W footage for some city backdrops giving it a neat feel.

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Another Japanese movie has a very different take on the past.

Memories of Matsuko (2006)
Dir: Nakashima Testsuya

Sho is a young, failed musician who goes to his aunt Matsuko’s home to pack stuff up after she dies. He had never met her, but by going through the piles of trash she left in her apartment he gradually pieces together her life.

Matsuko is shown as a tragic herione, with all her sadness, beauty and drama.

As her past is gradually revealed—the earnest schoolteacher, the bedazzled mistress, the sex trade worker, the accused murderess, the lover, the prisoner – she becomes not a miserable loner but a really interesting person. Most of the movie is narrated by her in a sort of a memoir she left behind.

At the start she’s an idealistic teacher who defends Ryu, one of her students, when he’s accused of stealing money on a school trip. When it’s blamed on her she loses her job and her father says she’s dead to him, and her life begins a slow downward spiral into hellish degradation. She’s saved at one point only by the image of Kohji Uchiumi of the 80’s teen pop group Hikaru Genji, known mainly for its roller skating teenager singers.

The movie resembles the movies of Jean-Pierre Jeunet (who directed MicMacs, and Amelie) but with a much brighter, day-glo, candy-coloured style to it, with a didtinctly Japanese not French style to it. It jumps from TV commercials, music videos, fantasies, and comic book tableaux, to intense and violebnt drama.

I was a bit disturbed by how much violence there was, almost always by the various men in Matsuko’s life — a philanderer, a pimp, a yakuza hood — who repeatedly slap her, punch her, and throw her to the ground, like in an old-scholl exploitation flick. But I think the movie does this to make Matsuko a sympathetic, (and at times vengeful) heroine. The more she suffers, the more she purseveres. Memories of Matsuko is classic female tragedy with a rich story, and a decidedly un-nostalgic tone.

These two movies are playing for free this weekend at the Bloor Cinema in Toronto, sponsored by the Japan Foundation.

Also opening this weekend is the winner of this year’s People’s Choice award at TIFF10 and a likely nominee for various Academy Awards:

“The King’s Speech”
Dir: Tom Hooper

Lionel (Geoffrey Rush) is an Australian speech therapist who invented techniques for returned soldiers from WWII. He’s hired, in great secrecy, to help a man (Colin Firth) – known to his friends as Bertie, and who later becomes King George VI — because he has a terrible stutter. With the advent of radio, he needs to fix his speech to stop freezing up whenever he’s asked to make an announcement. The meeting is arranged by his wife. Elizabeth.

But Lionel is a commoner, the first Bertie has ever met, and he is used to being addressed as his “Royal Highness”, or just “Sir”. Lionel works in a dirty, broken-down basement while Bertie lives in a palace. But Lionel insists they talk to each other as regular people do. He decides Berties problems are psychological – he’s intimidated by his father the King, and his brother, the Prince of Wales. So through the use of his experimental and amusing methods, he tries to get him comfortable pronouncing words without a stammer.

Now this is based on a true story, and Canadians I’ve talked to who lived through that era all remember that the King did indeed have a stutter. So it’s interesting to watch his speech improve. And the acting was all credible, with Derek Jacobi (I Claudius) as the Archbishop of Canterbury, and the frowzy, redoubtable actress with the double-barrelled name, Helena Bonham Carter, as the future Queen Elizabeth, mother of the current Queen.

But… this movie rubbed me the wrong way. Everything is so homogenized that the accents of the working-class Aussie therapist and the King aren’t really that different. And the history had such a story-book feel to it: Here’s Winston Churchill harrumphing about this, and there’s Wallis Simpson, whingeing about tha

The whole movie felt like an American TV-view of what England should be like. It was even visibly tiresome, with its constant, awful use of a wide-angle lens (where characters lean forward into the camera at a distorted angle, like in a bad 80’s TV commercial) giving the whole movie a geddit? geddit? tone.

I can tell this movie’s going to be popular, but it didn’t do much for me. It’s enjoyable, but it had such a sucky feeling — like the whole movie was there only to pander to nostalgic, royal-obsessed, faux-anglophilic Americans in order to secure some Oscars — that it just left me feeling vaguely annoyed.

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