Tuesday, February 19, 2008

Review: Her Brother (1960)

Reprinted from kuzu

Before we launch into our review, let's first look at some of the historical details of Her Brother (Japanese title: おとうと) :

-Adapted from the best-selling autobiography of Aya Koda, daughter of Rohan Koda, one of Japan's greatest authors of historically-based heroic fiction

-Directed by Kon Ichikawa (R.I.P.) who, up to Her Brother's release, had already released two of his masterworks, Fires On the Plain and The Burmese Harp, as well as his adaptations of Junichiro Tanizaki's The Key and Mishima's Enjo

-Featured at the 1961 Cannes Film Festival where it was also given a technical reward for the now-named "Bleach Bypass" color technique used to give the film its classic feel

-Multi-award winner in its native Japan including prestigious Best Film and Best Director Kinema Junpo awards

-Features an all-star cast of Keiko Kishi (Kwaidan, Early Spring and, in my opinion, has one of the most adorable pouts in film history), Hiroshi Kawaguchi (Floating Weeds, Giants and Toys,), Kinuyo Tanaka (Ballad of Narayama, Ugetsu), Masayuki Mori (Rashomon, The Bad Sleep Well)

-Also features an early acting role by a young Juzo Itami who would later go on to direct the modern classics A Taxing Woman and Tampopo

Her Brother is the story of a dedicated young woman, Gen (Kishi), who must tend to the needs of her brother Hekiro (Kawaguchi), father (Father), and stepmother (Tanaka). By all measures, one would think this film to be yet another classic in the Ichikawa resume but has instead all but sunk into obscurity in the western world. It's a shame because on the surface, though a melodrama, Her Brother is a strong portrait of Japanese families and, more specifically, women's roles within them. Despite the title, the film focuses more on Gen, the daughter in the family, and her forced role as the mother of the family due to the presence of her rheumatic stepmother: she cooks, cleans, runs the errands, and has to discipline and cover debts for Hekiro who is only a few years younger than her. Though the familial relationships are visibly strained, Gen wills herself as the glue that keeps them together even foresaking a domestic married life to do so. It's not until Hekiro becomes ill with tuberculosis that the family is able to come back together as a unit.

Though Ozu, for example, has touched on these issues throughout his career, Ichikawa in His Brother takes a different approach by relying less on visual cues via cinematography and instead relies on the viewer to understand the film through the dialog and actions of its characters. Ichikawa, however, does not skimp on the visuals. The family's home with its thin walls and fusuma (sliding doors) were used brilliantly to show how close people can be and yet how emotionally distant they really are. Passage of time is, likewise, shown very subtly: the chirp of cicadas signals summertime while the different patterns in clothing and layers worn by characters signal the passage of time.

Again, it's a shame that this film is not available for viewing anywhere except at special screenings (the one I attended was once again part of Stanford University's Japan 1960 series). Her Brother is a nice accompanying piece to Mikio Naruse's When a Woman Ascends the Stairs, released the same year. The former explores female roles in the family while the latter explores their roles within society; both of them excellent studies of this subject.



Michael Kerpan said...

This was released on DVD in Japan (but without subtitles, of course). I saw this as part of a retrospective several years ago. I liked it -- but it isn't one of my top Ichikawa favorites.

The performers were very good, but the characters they played were mostly fairly offputting -- and the tone of this was more dour than some of the other Ichikawa films of that period. Ten Dark women is a lot more fun (in its darkly humorous way). ;~}

rupan777 said...

Thanks for the report and for dropping by, Michael! I'll have to hope that Ten Dark Women comes out on DVD or makes a roadtrip as part of a retrospective here some day.