Director Yôji Yamada is shaping up to be a kind of Japanese Clint Eastwood—and, like Eastwood, he’s making his share of missteps. Consider the parallels: As Eastwood cut his teeth on a popular show (Rawhide), so did Yamada spend much of his career working on a beloved series (40-some-odd Tora-San films). Both old men are now known best for something else, though: thoughtful reinventions of their respective country’s foundational genre (Westerns for Eastwood, with Unforgiven; samurai pictures for Yamada, with his Fujisawa trilogy). And, also, female-centered melodramas.
Yamada’s latest, About Her Brother, which closes out Japan Cuts tonight, belongs to that category, as did his previous feature, last year’s unnoticed masterpiece, Kabei: Our Mother. Sayuri Yoshinaga, who played the title character in Kabei, plays here the woman to whom the titular Her refers, a pharmacist and widowed mom who raised her now-grown daughter (Yu Aoi) with the help of the girl’s grandmother (Haruko Kato). The three live together as a trio of strong women who don’t depend upon men: all the husbands have died or been divorced. But they’re not man-haters, either: Yoshinaga still maintains a tender spot for her black sheep little bro, Tetsuro (Tsurube Shofukutei), the title’s Brother.
He represents comedy, she tragedy—brother-and-sister opposites who stand-in for the film’s dual impulses, which Yamada emphasizes by frequently violating the 180-degree rule. Shofukutei is a wacky, whisky-chugging, soup-slurping uncle who enters the film during an extended, broadly comic set piece. But Japan is too polite a society—one, for example, with very little leeway for excessive drunkenness—for many of its jokes to translate to a looser culture like America’s, which does without so many layers of ritual and punctilio. Uncle’s “rudeness” doesn’t look hilariously rude from these shores; the old man talking about his pooing falls flat, despite Shofukutei’s ostensible comic gifts.
But Yamada, working again with frequent screenplay-collaborator Emiko Hiramatsu, doesn’t pursue this comic angle for long. Now, finally, for the title’s About: the movie quickly settles into the Sirkian sentimentality for which the director has become best known: brother amasses large gambling debts and then falls ill, always with his faithful sister to bail him out or tend to his bedside. Yamada has shown a flair for such tissue-box drama before, but here he seems to have adopted the laziness of the overconfident, going straight for the heartstrings, as though from a force of habit, without pausing to develop the characters and their relationships—to dig out, that is, the tragedy, instead of just assuming it’s there. Here, Yamada doesn’t earn those tears he so desperately craves to jerk.