Wednesday, September 15, 2010

Far East Specials: After the Rain

*Participation in the 1990s Far East Bracket over at the Filmspotting message boards has opened up an entirely new world of Asian cinema was that non-existent to me only a couple of years ago. Not all the movies I stumble upon in this tournament of films prove their worth, but every once in a while luck will share her pretty smile and hand me a little gem, or at least something of note that is inspiring and stays with me for days and sometimes weeks afterwards. Much like I did in the fall of ‘08 and winter of ’09, I’ll be offering some brief thoughts on the noteworthy films I discover throughout the bracket in the hopes that you, the readers, will also be encouraged to dig up some previously unheard of cinematic gems from the Far East. This will hopefully be a recurring article called Far East Specials.

Ame Agaru/ After the Rain (1999, Takashi Koizumi)

For comparative purposes, I would liken the curious beast that is After the Rain to 2001’s A.I. Artificial Intelligence. Steven Spielberg’s unfairly maligned sci-fi drama contained several ideas and story elements that were in fact the brainchild of a great American film director from the past, Stanley Kubrick. In the case of today’s movie, the screenplay was the very last written by Japan’s all time cinema master, Akira Kurasawa, before he passed away. The director, Takashi Koizumi, was Kuroswa’s assistant director for many decades, so one can foresee that there may be stylistic similarities between what this movie shall reveal and the works of Kurosawa.

The story of After the Rain focuses on the travels and small adventures of one ronin (master-less samurai) named Ihei Misawa (Akira Terao), a man with a decidedly uplifting look on life who, while unquestionably talented in bushido, prefers to settle whatever conflicts may arise through gestures of kindness and a warm smile. He stays at an inn with his beloved wife Tayo (Yoshiko Miyazaki) while a heavy rain floods the region. Given the poor weather outside, several other travelers are temporarily stranded at the inn, prompting Misawa to lighten the dour mood with a feast. The importance of these early scene consists mostly of showing off how nice of a guy Misawa is. Shortly after the rain has subsided, our benevolent ronin takes a lonesome walk in the forest, where he encounters a few agitated young samurai students who are about to engage in combat. In the nick of time Misawa defuses the conflict, earning the attention of the clan’s lord, Shigeaki (Shiro Mifune), who was standing not far away. The lord invites Misawa to dinner and offers employment as the clan’s sword master, much to the ire of the other teachers and experienced warriors of the clan.

I haven’t seen all of Akira Kurosawa’s films (that would literally require a few more years at the rate I watch movies), but I have seen a decent amount, and I find the screenplay to After the Rain, which he wrote, to be refreshing. A lot of characters in his films are quite violent and many a time the central figures of his films have had a propensity to violence or agitation. Rather than continuing the tradition of rough and tough samurai heroes, here the hero is shining a different kind of light. I’d even say that with After the Rain, we get the opposite. Ihei Misawa possesses all the skill necessary to dispatch any antagonists in the blink of an eye, much like the great samurai characters of Kuroswa’s previous stories like Sanjuro, but this movie’s protagonist seems naturally gifted with something more important: compassion. He is not a violent man at all even though he could be if he chose to. He smiles a lot, keeps his composure at all times, and often makes an effort to be helpful and decent. The guy is as cool as a cucumber. There is a tenderness to the character of Misawa that was a pure joy to watch because it brought such a different flavour to the samurai genre. I absolutely love samurai films with a heroic protagonist who slices and dices his (or her) way through hoards of villains to restore peace and justice, but the central character of After the Rain is such the antithesis to that formula that I was instantly compelled and charmed by what I was seeing. Even when faced with no other choice than combat, his swiftness and stunning reflexes allow him to avoid his challengers’ blades and subdue them with quick hand to hand moves. I think the one time we see someone actually die by the sword it is accidental and the result of ‘friendly fire.’ There are scenes in which his close rivals are taken aback by his demeanour (which is an odd one for a samurai), only frustrating them more so while Misawa cautiously avoids getting confrontational.

Misawa’s natural inclination to show decency and kindness towards others not only applies to people at the inn or lord Shigeaki, but also his loving wife. Both don’t see eye to eye with regards to Misawa’s use of his skills. Tayo doesn’t necessarily want to be the wife of a ronin, but she loves him for who is he and he often times looks for her forgiveness whenever she learns that he was, willingly or not, involved in some sort of conflict. The film tries to balance these two parallel plot points, the ronin’s involvement in Shigeaki’s clan and his life with Tayo, and I thought it accomplished that rather nicely. Of the Kurosawa films I’ve seen, the women were either not of any significant importance or were actually pretty evil, so here again there was a refreshing change of pace to the plot. Everything returns to this initial idea that Misawa is not your average ronin looking for chumps to gut in order to make a buck…or yen. Even when others take their chances and try to pry some sort of aggressiveness out of him, he just keeps his blood at regular temperature because that’s the way he is, no more and no less.

Koizumi’s direction is controlled and assured, which can be viewed two separate ways. The first is that such a reality comes as a welcome surprise given how he hadn’t been a feature director very often in his career. On the other hand, he was under the wing of Akira Kurosawa for about 28 years, so one would hope that Koizumi acquired some sort of directorial skills after all that work. Still, one can’t lose focus on the fact that this is Koizumi solo, it’s his movie, and his efforts are not bad at all. The film possesses a more classical look and feel to it. The framing in many shots is carefully chosen to focus on very specific objects or people in a given scene, many times remaining static for several minutes so the viewer can inhale the sights and sounds of where conversations are occurring. Whenever the camera performs more dynamic moves, such as panning, I noticed it was very subtle and its intention was merely to follow the action more properly, not necessarily to inject any sort of ‘adrenaline’ into the picture. For a film with a story which develops as calmly as is the case here, After the Rain moves long at a really brisk pace. Of course, it doesn’t quite reach 90 minutes in running length (87 to be precise), so that might have something to do with it, but I was acutely aware of how director Koizumi was handling his scenes. He liked to linger on certain moments, but rarely, if ever indulged. It was often just enough for elements to sink into the viewer’s mind and then move on.

The beauty of the movie is also found in its score, which at first comes across as too sentimental. Hmm, maybe I should choose my words more carefully. I think the score might feel too ‘romantic’ at times, and not in the sense we understand romanticism today. There is a majestic quality (that kind of romance) to the score that required a bit of effort from me to become accustomed to it. I don’t know if it always suited every single scene, but I wouldn’t want to begrudge the film because of it. I do think that, simply as music, it makes for a nice listen, but I hesitate to call it a really good and suitable score.

After the Rain
is more than just a curiosity. It shouldn’t merely be viewed as ‘that Kurosawa screenplay somebody else directed.’ It truly is a very nice movie, which, yes, brought to life Kurosawa’s final script, but also gave Takashi Koizumi to take the spotlight as director for one of the few times in his career. More importantly, it’s a samurai tale that isn’t afraid to give the viewer a radically different vision of what such warriors could be.

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