Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

July 17, 2010

About Her Brother

Filed under: Film,Japan — louisproyect @ 6:07 pm

This year I was initially disappointed to discover that the New York Asian Film Festival had gone upscale. No longer would the movies be shown at the funky Anthology Film Archive on East 2nd Street, but at Lincoln Center. Half in jest, Subway Cinema—the long-time organizers of the NYAFF—described the move as “selling out”.  The move to Lincoln Center would have been okay with me as long as I was still on Subway Cinema’s a-list. Unfortunately the relocation coincided with some kind of restructuring at Subway that ended up with me being deleted from their mailing list—and hence without press privileges. I suppose that I could have made some phone calls to be reinstated but it hardly seemed worth the effort given this year’s program which puts the final touches on a trend that has been developing for some time now.

Basically, Asian film—especially from Japan—has become more and more influenced by anime, the comic book style that emphasizes lurid subject matter, campiness, kitsch and a shallow punk sensibility. This 2010 NYAFF feature called Death Kappa is typical. From the NYAFF website:

A double-barreled blast of 80’s VHS nostalgia, DEATH KAPPA is the ultimate lo-fi giant monster movie. Produced by the same evil geniuses who made MACHINE GIRL, DEATH TRANCE and TOKYO GORE POLICE, it’s directed by Tomoo Haraguchi, a special effects and creature craftsman who did the effects on Kore-eda’s AIR DOLL as well as spiral-madness motion picture, UZUMAKI, and even GAMERA 3. It stars Misato Hirata, famous for her appearances on Ultraman, and the teeny tiny miniature cities pancaked under giant monster feet are courtesy of Isao Takahashi, veteran of almost every major kaiju movie since GODZILLA ’85.


Last week Bill Thompson, my co-worker in the financial systems team at Columbia and a curator of Asian films at Bleecker Street Cinema in the 1980s, left a brochure on my desk for a festival of new movies at the Japan Society in New York, an event that I still had press credentials for. A quick glance revealed the same kind of fare as NYAFF, such as Mutant Girls Squad that was described thusly:

In 2009, Tak Sakaguchi (Versus), Yoshihiro Nishimura (Tokyo Gore Police) and Noboru Iguchi (RoboGeisha), came to the New York Asian Film Festival, got drunk and decided to make a movie together. The result: this splatter-ific, kick-tastic, raunchy riff on the X-Men movies. It takes three directors to make a movie this messed up.

Yeah, I’ll bet it is quite messed up.

When I saw Bill on Thursday I confessed my disappointment with the programs at both festivals, something he understood completely. But thankfully he tipped me off to a movie by 79-year-old director Yoji Yamada that would be shown on Friday night. Yamada is one of my favorite directors and I would go to see anything he made, including one starring Adam Sandler.

At first blush About Her Brother would appear to be something off the beaten track from Yamada who is best known for his Samurai Trilogy. The Japan Society website described it as the reunion of middle-aged sister and brother Ginko and Tetsuro. When Tetsuro, “an actor with a stalled career and a penchant for drinking, jeopardizes the marriage of Ginko’s daughter, she must take the necessary steps to disown him.” Not a likely place for sword duels. Bill explained to me, however, that it was the samurai movies that were the departure for Yamada, whose previous movies were much more like “About Her Brother”.

After having seen About Her Brother, it dawned on me that on a higher level all the movies were consistent with each other, regardless of sword fighting and feudal values since they all deal with the problems of family life, especially in a period of economic decline.

As I have stated about the Samurai Trilogy, Yamada—a one-time Marxist who has retained sympathy for society’s underdogs—viewed the warrior class as the exploited victims of a feudal system rather than as dashing supermen.  From my review of Twilight Samurai, the first in the series:

Seibi is a lowly 50-koku samurai, which means that he gets an annual stipend of rice that can feed 50 people (a koku is equal to five bushels.) This is insufficient to support himself, his two daughters and his elderly mother who is suffering from Alzheimer’s. (His wife has died of consumption, brought on obviously by poverty.) Forced to make ends meet, he spends every free moment tilling his fields or making cages for the crickets that were kept as pets in Shogunate households. A combination of exhaustion and depression has taken its toll on the lowly samurai. His fellow workers notice that he has body odor and that his kimono is frayed at the edges. When a high-level commissioner conducts an inspection of the palace warehouse, he instructs Seibei to take a bath and mend his clothes. Afterwards, his boss bawls him out.

We first meet the wayward brother Tetsuro from Osaka at the wedding scene in About Her Brother. He has decided to crash the wedding in Tokyo despite Ginko’s decision to keep him as far away from the event as possible. The last time he attended a festivity he drank himself silly and caused embarrassment for the family, an obvious taboo for a Japanese society fixated on propriety.

After promising that he will stay away from the booze, Tetsuro is admitted into the banquet hall where he proceeds without delay to get drunk once again. He staggers to his feet, approaches the dais, and warns the groom that if he ever cheats on Ginko’s daughter Koharu, he will beat him up. Things get worse from that point, climaxing with Tetsuro toppling a banquet table, scattering dishes to the floor. The groom blames his bride’s family for ruining the event and his parents accuse Koharu for introducing bad DNA into their future bloodlines.

It turns out that the groom’s family would have nothing to worry about since the marriage would end before the year was up. The groom, a wealthy doctor, refuses to pay Koharu for driving lessons. He believes that she should have seen learning to drive as preparation for marriage. Not only is he cheap, he is cold. When Koharu insists on sorting out their many differences, he tells her he is too busy at the hospital for a face-to-face and asks her to send him email.

When Ginko learns about the foundering marriage, she sets up a meeting at the hospital with the doctor who keeps looking at his watch and answers a cell phone call despite the seriousness of the matter. At some point the question of Ginko’s finances comes up. She inherited her husband’s pharmacy that is losing money to the competition from big chain stores, the Japanese equivalent of CVS. The doctor says that this is progress and she should expect to go out of business eventually. It is clear that Yamada would see such a cold and self-centered character as embracing the crushing of small businesses.

It is also clear that he would make sure to include signs of Japanese economic crisis, a force that undermined a pharmacist’s family today just as the decline of feudalism would put pressure on a samurai’s family in the 1800s. In many of the street scenes, we see homeless people carrying their belongings in a shopping cart. In one scene, the visiting Tetsuro strolls along a Tokyo river and runs into a man living in a shack. Watch out for the rising waters Tetsuro warns him that the previous day’s heavy rains might bring.

Tetsuro himself is only one step ahead of the homeless man. A failed actor in his middle ages, he makes a living frying octopus in a restaurant. Despite his marginal existence, he is a victim of costly vices—drinking and gambling. After he borrows the equivalent of about $20 thousand from his girl friend in Osaka, he throws it all away on booze and pachinko games. The girl friend then shows up at Ginko’s home expecting his older sister to make good on the debt, which she does.

When Tetsuro shows up soon afterward, Ginko tells him that she is done with him. Tetsuro, who has the alcoholic’s incapacity for self-awareness, tells her that she should have ignored his girl friend that he describes as a worthless person. This provokes the normally self-contained Ginko to slap her brother in the face. He storms out telling her that she does not understand what it is like to go through life as a loser, the first sign that the alcoholic haze is lifting.

This is a spoiler alert. Read no further if you do not want to know about the final third of the movie that is critical to my analysis even though it might rob you of the pleasure of being surprised at the brother and sister’s reconciliation.

Not long after Tetsuro returns to Osaka, he falls ill on the street and is taken to a nearby hospital where doctors discover that he is incurably ill with a cancer that has spread throughout his body. He is accepted into a hospice where he will die within a few months. After Ginko learns of his fate, she goes to Osaka and does everything she can to provide moral support until he dies. After being rebuffed initially, Tetsuro accepts his sister’s compassion and love.

The final scenes in the hospice deal more graphically with the final act of life, which is death of course, than anything I have seen in a movie in years. There is no attempt to gloss over the suffering that Tetsuro endures. Despite his misspent life, you feel hollowed out by his passing that was clearly Yamada’s intention. By making this unlikeable wastrel the focus of the audience’s sympathies, he assumes the highest levels of artistic achievement. This is a movie that will eventually be seen as the equivalent of Akira Kurosawa’s To Live, a tale of a dying man who is redeemed by his selfless devotion to other people. By the miracle of art, Yamada transforms a flawed character into an object of wonder even though his flaws remain with him to the end. In keeping with the dark humor of this most powerful and realized film, Tetsuro asks his sister to fill his feeding tube with a water bottle beneath his bed that turns out to be filled with booze.

Since Yoji Yamada is one of Japan’s most respected directors, it is likely that About Her Brother will come to the USA before too long. It is not to be missed.


  1. This is the only place to go for this kind of information, and I thank you for it.

    Comment by Michael — July 19, 2010 @ 5:42 am

  2. Yamada’s おとうと is indeed a great movie.

    I’m not sure about the translation though. “Younger brother” is the literal translation. Though it’s only a minor matter, I’m always puzzled by such choices.

    There is a 1960 Kon Ichikawa film with the same name (おとうと). That one is translated into English as “Her brother.”

    I also agree that the Asian Film Festival took a turn for a worse this year. The highlight of the whole thing was the Chinese documentary about cleaning Tiananmen square.

    Comment by The Idiot — July 19, 2010 @ 7:12 am

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