Oh, Reel-y: Two Koji Yakusho Films and One Other


Koji Yakusho is a huge star in Japan, something like the George Clooney of Japanese cinema. He takes on diverse roles in a wide variety of genres, from novelists to lumberjacks to samurai, and he recently received the Medal with Purple Ribbon from the Emperor of Japan for his “outstanding achievement in the creative field” of acting. As part of their festival this year, Japan Cuts had a Focus on Koji Yakusho series, showcasing several of his films.

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Chronicle of My Mother
2011

Set in the 1950s and 1960s, Chronicle of My Mother is an elegant portrait of a large, multigenerational family, focusing particularly on the relationship between the patriarch, a successful writer played by the aforementioned Koji Yakusho, and his aging mother who’s gradually losing her grip on reality. The family’s outward success and propriety belies the hidden resentments and familial rifts seated in the writer’s childhood that the film gradually unveils. The movie is beautifully filmed, and all the performances are remarkable. A fascinating portrayal of familial life and culture in Japan in the latter half of the twentieth century, the film has drawn comparisons to, and in fact references in its body, Bergman and Ozu. Truth be told, I haven’t seen much of the work of those two acclaimed filmmakers, but that’s some pretty lofty praise.

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13 Assassins
2010

13 Assassins is a samurai film that starts with an intense seppuku scene and doesn’t let up till the end of the movie, with several hundred corpses lying around an abandoned town. Koji Yakuso trades his novelist’s pen for a samurai sword and leads a band of 11 samurai swordsmen plus one ragtag forest bandit on a suicide assassination mission against one sadistic Lord Naritsugu and his merry band of several hundred bodyguards. Naritsugu is truly villainous; he shoots arrows at unarmed children and hacks off the limbs of poor slave girls, so we’re rooting for his comeuppance. The highlight of the film is a massive set-piece where the samurai take on the baddies in a country town rigged into a massive party booby trap. The movie ends on a odd comedic note that really doesn’t match the tone of the rest of the film, but aside from that misstep it’s epic badassery at its finest. I saw The Dark Knight Rises the night before watching 13 Assassins, and that was a total snoozer in comparison.

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About the Pink Sky
2011

Shot in black and white, About the Pink Sky centers on a high school girl who finds a wallet with a massive wad of cash that, through a random chain of events, leads her and her two girl friends to help a super rich kid start a newspaper featuring only “good news.” The movie is slow-paced and well-shot, and the unique story is a deft and nuanced take on contemporary adolescent life. The strength of the film lies in the performances of the young actors, as they capture the emotional shifts of teens grappling with friendship and crushes, love and loss. It’s smarter and better than how cheesy I make it sound.

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