October 10, 2020
The Yellow Handkerchief – Japan, 1977
Characters like Yusaku Shima are some of the hardest to get right. No doubt, you know his type the moment he enters the frame – he’s often alone – even when in the company of others, his face is either emotionless or far too pained for any human being, and when he does speak, it is what he doesn’t say that speaks volumes. Sometimes he is a villain – and a cold-blooded one at that, pursuing his victims often without ever explaining why he chose to torment our hero. When he is a more sympathetic character, his silence is often intentional, a cloak he wears to prevent the world from seeing – and subsequently rejecting - who he really is. And more often than not, this caution is warranted.
The challenge for writers of such characters comes when circumstances call for the silence to be broken. This is a challenge easily ignored when the laconic one is on the wrong side of the law – after all, he can just be a homicidal lunatic who simply gets his kicks off preying on the innocent. It is the noble ones who pose the most trouble. Say too little, and he remains an enigma; say too much and the revelation may not seem worthy of the prior investment.
Yoji Yamada’s The Yellow Handkerchief is the story of three travelers, each one making up their journey as they go along. The first one we meet is Kinya Hanada (Tetsuyo Takeda), an immature young man on a quest to prove his luck with women is not as horrible as it has always seemed. In the beginning of the film, we learn he has recently been rejected, an outcome that leads him to quit his job and spend all of his savings on a car, which he drives to Hokkaido. There, he meets Akemi Ogawa (well-played by Kaori Ogawa), a young woman who just learned that her boyfriend is cheating on her, and offers to drive her wherever she’s going. He’s just happy to be in the presence of a lady. At a rest stop, Kinya asks Yusaku (Ken Takakura) to take their picture, and eventually he is offered a ride, which he accepts despite not having a clear destination himself.
The set-up – three lost souls driving aimlessly around a volcanic island (how’s that for symbolism) - is promising, and the film does a decent job of building viewer’s interest in each character. Though Kinya remains an annoyance throughout most of the film, he undergoes just enough growth to justify Akemi’s ever changing feelings towards him. A wiser film would have had her develop feelings for Yusaku, but it is clear from her initial interaction with him that her role is to chip away at the emotional wall he had erected to keep people at a distance.
The three of them stay at a hotel, Yusaku in his own room; Kinya and Akemi in another, but just to save money, Kinya explains. Soon, he awkwardly makes his move and is rebuffed; this leads to his being chastised by Yusaku for lacking romantic instincts and being a “third-rate ball player,” the kind whose lack of skills prevents him from ever getting on base. For his part, Yusaku is respectful of women, and in flashbacks, we see evidence of a tender relationship, as well as a possible incident with the police. At a checkpoint, he is forced to reveal a bit more, and it almost results in his arrest.
It is here that the filmmakers find themselves at that proverbial fork in the road. One path has Yusaku decide he’s said enough and renew his prior embrace of aloofness. On the other, one revelation begats another and then the floodgates open. Yamada and his co-writer, Asuna Yoshitaka, elect for the latter, and it is the wrong choice. More than halfway over, the film does not have enough time to do justice to the story that unravels or to the essential character it includes. As a result, what we see does not match what we are asked to believe, and the film’s attempt at a happy ending ultimately feels forced, an emotional cop-out rather than earned relief, and this cheapens the life-altering circumstances laid bare just a few scenes earlier. Yusaku is a man in need of true redemption, not the kind of overtly silly symbolism more reminiscent of a John Hughes or Cameron Crowe comedy than a profile of a psychologically-damaged individual. The result is a journey that ends up being much less worth taking than the first half suggests.
And yet, there’s Ken Takakura, an actor I could watch admiring drying paint and still be enthralled by. He is the perfect choice to play Yusaku, for he has the uncanny ability to express feelings while portraying them being suppressed. We can see in his weary eyes and troubled look a startling distrust in himself, a shame in some prior decision. When he speaks ill of Kinya, it is clear that he is also critiquing himself while simultaneously concealing the why and the how. In his career, Takakura played many such characters, and he did so them exceptionally well. He was a rare breed. He could take a substandard film like The Yellow Handkerchief and make you glad you devoted your time to it. You can’t say that about most actors. (on DVD in Region 3)
2 and a half stars
*The Yellow Handkerchief is in Japanese with English subtitles
*The film was the first recipient of the Best Picture award at the Japan Academy Prize, Japan’s equivalent of the Academy Awards.
*The film’s title was inspired by Tony Orlando’s song “Tie a Yellow Ribbon Round the Old Oak Tree.”