Yoji Yamada’s “My Sons,” a contemporary family melodrama about generation gap in an ever-changing Japan, belongs to the same tradition as Ozu’s classic “Tokyo Story” (1953), thematically if not stylistically. Pic’s universal concerns, mild humor and charisma of Masatoshi Nagase (who starred in Jim Jarmusch’s “Mystery Train”) should help it in fests and in big cities where there is built-in interest in Japanese cinema.
Rentaro Minuni gives a stellar performance as Akio Asano, a patriarchal widower who lives alone in the country. The aging man simply cannot understand the departure of his two sons to Tokyo. Immensely proud of his rural roots, he sees their move as betrayal. Indeed, the otherwise very different sons share a common desire to gain independence from their strong-headed father.
Tale begins in Akio’s village with a big family gathering commemorating the first anniversary of his wife’s death. Tetsuo (Nagase), the youngest and a “problem” child, upsets his father when he arrives at the temple late wearing a dirty shirt. Worried about their father’s solitary life and deteriorating health , the children suggest that he move to Tokyo and live with his eldest son Tadashi (Ryuzo Tanaka), who works in a big firm. But the stubborn man insists he can still fend for himself.
Most of the narrative deals with the adventures of Tetsuo in Tokyo. Determined to prove himself, he takes a hard physical job at a steel factory. Tetsuo also meets a girl, Seiko (Emi Wakui), who seems to be too shy–until it is revealed she is hearing-impaired. The dignified manner in which she is presented and the courtship that ensues between the youngsters are two of pic’s most charming highlights.
Second half of pic revolves around the father’s visit in Tokyo for a WWII army veterans’ reunion. In an interesting contrast to American youth movies, which always take the children’s point of view, “My Son” sides with the father, preaching for a reconciliation between the generations.
Yamada, best-known for his popular “Tora-san” films, the world’s longest running theatrical film series (44 features), directs with a remarkably firm but unostentatious hand. His treatment of the material is functional and matter-of-fact. Leisurely paced and restrained pic lacks the excessive melodramatics of similarly themed U.S. movies. Though preaching for old family values, pic is decidedly unsentimental.
Lenser Tetsuo Takaba contributes handsome visuals and visual contrast between city and country is aided by Matsumara’s soft evocative music, which is particularly effective in the transition of scenes.
At the end, when Asano goes back to his beloved country house, he carries with him one important present–a fax machine. In this ironic turn, “My Sons” suggests the inevitable penetration of modern technology into the smallest and most remote of villages.