Yoji Yamada is one of the most significant film directors in Japan. While he may lack the profile of earlier, critically adored filmmaker like Ozu, Mizoguchi, or Akira Kurosawa – or indeed contemporary favourites like Kiyoshi Kurosawa (no relation) or Kore-eda – he has been consistently making feature films since the early 1960s. In 2021 he continues to direct at the impressive age of 90.
Yamada is best known for two key achievements. Firstly, he created, wrote and directed the overwhelming bulk of the popular Tora-San series of movie comedies, which ran for 49 instalments and only concluded with the death of its lead actor Kiyoshi Atsumi. Secondly, Yamada enjoyed an international surge in popularity with his acclaimed trilogy of samurai dramas: The Twilight Samurai (2002), The Hidden Blade (2004), and Love and Honor (2006). The former was awarded the Japanese Academy Award for Best Picture, and nominated for the Best Foreign Film Oscar. To my knowledge he is the only Japanese director to have his own dedicated museum – it is across the road from the official Tora-San museum. The bulk of Yamada’s oeuvre consists of contemporary light comedies and historical dramas. The Little House, which he directed in 2014 based on a Kyoko Nakajima novel, is of the latter genre.
The Little House begins with the death of elderly great aunt Taki Numomiya (Chieko Baisho). While helping to sort out her belongings, grandnephew Takeshi (Takoshi Tsumabuki) finds her hand-written memoir. It reveals her life as a young woman (Haru Kuroki), working as a maid for a wealthy Tokyo family – and witnessing a growing affair between her mistress (Takako Matsu) and a bookish young man (Hidetaka Yoshioka).
Yamada directs a film that is slow, patient, and thoughtful. It may even seem emotionally distant to viewers unfamiliar with classical Japanese cinema. It utilises an unexpected narrative structure – a flashback within a flashback – but delivers its story with emotional honesty and remarkable dignity.
Not only is The Little House dominated by good performances, it is dominated by good female performances. Chieko Baisho provides the emotional framework as the older Taki, having mysteriously never married while carrying some deep sense of loss. As the younger Taki, Haru Kuroki acts as a sympathetic observer to the story’s central romance. Takako Matsu is superb as Tokiko, a wife in a visibly loveless marriage. Sadly Hidetaka Yoshioka – a former child star from the Tora-San movies – comes across as a little too weak and mannered to match her in the love affair.
Where Yamada’s film absolutely excels is in its period detail. The main narrative runs a nine-year span from 1936 to 1945, which uses the affluent Tokyo suburbs as a backdrop for enormous societal change. Superficially it means seeing a gradual embracing of western classical music and non-Japanese fashion. More dramatically it sees the newly militarised government wage war and commit atrocities in China, then fight the Second World War in the Pacific. The conflicts are never seen. They are never honestly talked about. The audience is shown idle conversation, bigoted assumptions by corporate middle-managers, and increasing amounts of propaganda, social pressure, and rumour-mongering. It is a perspective on Japan’s darkest decade that is rarely seen, and feels genuinely illuminating.
This is a cumulatively powerful and heartfelt drama, and another superb film work by a master filmmaker we risk taking for granted.