[Our thanks to Chris Bourne for this review]
Yoji Yamada's About Her Brother is his first contemporary drama in a decade, following his samurai trilogy (The Twilight Samurai, The Hidden Blade, Love and Honor) and his previous film, the WWII reminiscence Kabei: Our Mother. However, despite its modern setting, his latest film has the same feel as Kon Ichikawa's 1960 classic Ototo (Her Brother); Yamada uses the same basic story for his film, which he dedicates to Ichikawa.
As in the earlier version, About Her Brother focuses on the relationship between Ginko (Sayuri Yoshinaga), a long-time widow and pharmacy owner who has never remarried, and her incorrigible younger brother Tetsuro (Tsurube Shofukutei), who causes much embarrassment with his casual approach to personal responsibility and his penchant for drinking and gambling. Ginko has put up with Tetsuro's antics ever since they were children, but Tetsuro severely tests the limits of her patience when he drunkenly wrecks the wedding reception of Ginko's daughter Koharu (Yu Aoi), and later on when she has to bail him out of a debt he owes to a woman he has been seeing. Ginko finally cuts ties with her brother, but their familial bond and her sense of emotional indebtedness to him makes it very difficult for her to remain separate from him.
Yoji Yamada is a consummate craftsman of cinema, and he gets everything right in About Her Brother, displaying the skill and comfort that comes from many years of making films, showing considerable care and attention to detail. Yamada has learned the tricks of his trade as thoroughly as the young carpenter (Ryo Kase) who befriends Koharu later in the film. This is essentially a tearjerker, but Yamada never allows the material to descend into cheap bathos, respecting the intelligence of both the audience and his actors, ensuring that every emotion elicited from the film is fully earned. Yamada, best known for his beloved, long-running film series featuring the traveling salesman Tora-san (who, charmingly, makes a brief appearance here), is as old-fashioned a filmmaker as they come, which is a major part of his charm. Even though About Her Brother is set in a modern age in which people use cell phones and such, its milieu is virtually unchanged from Ichikawa's original, with young women's marriages being an Ozu-like central concern, and arranged marriages still very much the way things are done. There is, however, one significant change Yamada makes to Ichikawa's original: the siblings in About Her Brother are considerably older than the ones played by Keiko Kishi and Hiroshi Kawagichi in the earlier film. Ginko and Tetsuro have experienced much more of the world than the siblings in Ototo, and this allows Yamada to explore the theme of the effects of time's passage that gives the film's final scenes their powerful poignancy.
Yamada strikes a seamless balance between the old and new in About Her Brother, such that elements of his tale that may seem outdated do not come across as anachronistic or create logical dissonance. Yamada's films envelop the viewer in a warm and generous embrace, emotionally satisfying as well as beautifully constructed, achieving this with an invisible style recalling classic Hollywood cinema as well as many earlier Japanese films. This loving attention to detail and craftsmanship extends to the film's performances, especially those of Yamada regular Yoshinaga and Shofukutei as the siblings. Yoshinaga is compelling as the sister who is torn between her efforts to shake some sense into her brother, and her willingness to allow him to remain who he is. Shofukutei, a popular rakugo (storyteller) comedian in Japan (and who also appears in the Japan Cuts selection Dear Doctor), brilliantly conveys the garrulous and irreverent nature of his character, and is equally adept at handling the more dramatic scenes late in the film.
About Her Brother screens at Japan Society on July 16, 6:15pm.