Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art

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PostPosted: Wed Apr 30, 2014 10:43 am 
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Yasuko Tomita and Atsuko Maeda in Tamako in Moratorium

Japan has slackers too now

"A bittersweet family dramedy that could be a contempo variant on Ozu's 'Late Spring,' wrote Maggie Lee for Variety when she watched this little Japanese film at Busan early last October. But while Ozu saw universal experience though a filter of Japanese culture, Yamashita views his cultural phenomena through a sociological lens. Cold economic reality is also part of how life is seen these days; but what appeals here is not so much any of that as the filmmaker's light ironic touch.

And that touch is needed in pop star Atsuko Maeda's depiction of Tamako, the daughter home from college without a job, to avoid horror or contempt for such slacker behavior. The Japanese spoil and cherish their children, traditionally the male ones (see the comic "make my bed" sequences in The Family Game). The post war generations were tremendously motivated to reassert pride, to rebuild. Then came the economic miracle. Then came generations that were not only spoiled rotten but without motivation or pride. Enter Tamako. Her state of being is conveyed largely through mime. Just the way she lazily wolfs down a half-frozen rice cake for breakfast dully staring at the TV speaks volumes. In a way, though, she is just getting a chance to be a "teenager," a concept Americans got to explore in the Fifties and Sixties, but that the Japanese could not afford nor allow in earlier decades.

Yamashita handles the pace nicely, the long routine while Tamako drifts with food, sleep, TV, manga graphic novels, and video games suddenly broken by the angry outburst of her father (Suon Kan) and her reply that she will do something when the time comes, but that is certainly not now! The passage, or the dragging along, of time is designated by the Ozu-esque method of seasons, beginning with fall and shifting into winter, then spring, then summer when things finally happen. Tamako lives alone and friendless with her father, who runs a local sporting goods store catering to schools. The dwelling space is small and cluttered and packed in close to the shop, so Tamako is often in sight when dad is working. The question is, as the seasons pass: will she ever get a job, and how long will he put up with this? The low energy level is heightened by this being not the big city but Kofu in rural Yamanashi Prefecture (Japan Times informs us). Many eating scenes present a domesticity that oscillates between the cozy, the oppressive and the comical.

The desultory, offhand movement of the piece leads, several seasons along, to acceptance of the inevitable. Tamako amusingly sends Hitoshi (Kiyoya Ito), the junior high boy she talks to (who explicitly has more going on than she does) to check out the divorced jewelry making teacher dad may be interested in (Yasuko Tomita), then goes herself and tries to discourage this lady by childishly expressing her own personal complaints about life with dad, ending with the criticism that he doesn't kick her out. Later, he does, perhaps responding from a tip from the new girlfriend. The casualness and spot-on observation is shown in the final lines, where the teenage boy tells Tamako he and his girlfriend "drifted apart" and Tamako laughs and says to herself afterward, "I haven't heard that one in a while." Writing by Kosuke Mukai deserves credit for many choice minimalist exchanges. However, there is also no strong arc here, or much of an emotional buildup. The filmmakers are content to work on a little piece of ivory, and it's not Jane Austen's -- or Yasujir├┤ Ozu's either. Nonetheless Yamashita, whose previous work has been more sarcastic and dark, has made a little contribution to the contemporary picture of Japanese family life.

Tamako in Moratorium/Moratorium Tamako, 78 mins., opened theatrically in Japan 23 November 2013 after its Busan debut and was reviewed also showed at Rotterdam and Hong Kong. Screened for this review as part of the San Francisco Film Festival (24 April-8 May 2014).

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