Adapting but not enlivening Kyoko Nakajima’s novel, Nipponese journeyman Yoji Yamada cranks out his umpteenth bourgeois family drama with “The Little House,” driven by an adulterous affair so discreet and passionless, it makes the characters and their wartime setting feel stuffier than they should. Observing civilian life while the nation was at war from 1936-1945, the film’s re-creation of the early Showa period yields more elegant aesthetics than the 82-year-old helmer’s vapid contempo remakes like “About My Brother” or “Tokyo Family,” but it’s still a long sit at 136 minutes. Coming in third at the domestic B.O. upon release, this nostalgia vehicle is suited only to Japan’s older audiences and Taiwan’s Nipponese culture buffs.
At the funeral of his great-aunt, Taki Nunomiya (Chieko Baisho), Takeshi (Satoshi Tsumabuki) reminisces about the old spinster, who, at his prompting, wrote memoirs of her early life as a maid during Japan’s war years. In 1936, Taki (now played by Haru Kuroki), an 18-year-old village girl from snowy Yamagata prefecture, comes to Tokyo and finds employment at the household of novelist Konaka (Isao Hashitsume). The eccentric old man tell her that “a maid is responsible for the happiness of her employers’ marriage” — a motto she takes to heart, with unhappy consequences.
Before long, Konaka’s wife passes Taki on to her niece Tokiko (Takako Matsu), who has just moved into a Western-style, red-roofed house with her husband, toy-company executive Masaki Hirai (Takataro Kataoka), and their young son, Koichi (Satoshi Akiyama). When Koichi contracts polio and cannot walk, Taki endears herself to the Hirai family by devoting herself to his rehabilitation. As Tokiko surrounds herself with imported material comforts while Masaki feels upbeat about his career, there’s no hint of the emotional emptiness or marital incompatibility that would precipitate the wife’s fateful encounter with her husband’s colleague Shoji Itakura (Hidetaka Yoshioka), a dweeby artist furtively at odds with the belligerent nationalism of his contemporaries.
Although both parties are instantly smitten with each other, Shoji and Tokiko’s affair unfolds at snail’s pace, with nary the slightest illicit thrill. Except for a few key encounters, their trysts take place offcamera, and sexual suggestiveness only goes as far as Shoji telling his landlady “We won’t be needing tea” when Tokiko comes for a visit.
By the time Taki grasps how dangerous this liaison is under the fascist regime, she takes a step which, had it been treated with the right degree of suspense and dramatic heft, could have achieved considerable pathos. As it is, coming in the form of a limp, dragged-out coda present-day coda, the final reveal merely suggests the character has made a mountain out of a molehill.
Nakajima’s original novel, which won the Naoki Prize for literature in 2010, employs a plot device that recalls L.P. Hartely’s “The Go-Between” (filmed by Joseph Losey in 1971). The film version of “The Little House” follows its source’s narrative structure, but its purpose — to contrast innocence and transgression through the sisterly bond between Tokiko and Taki — is lost in the poor chemistry between thesps Matsu and Kuroki (who nevertheless won a Silver Bear for best actress at Berlin). Moreover, Taki’s slow-burning love for Shoji is implied but never satisfactorily dramatized.
Casting seems predicated less on suitability than on a desire to reunite alumni from the director’s past films. Baisho (star of “The Yellow Handkerchief,” among other Yamada works), is flavorless as the elderly Taki, while Yoshioka (who’s appeared in several episodes of the “Tora-san” saga) recycles the drippy, struggling artist he played in the “Always: Sunset on Third Street” series, but never cuts it as heartthrob material. Matsu (“The Hidden Blade”) pouts and storms like a spoiled child without evoking the frustrations women felt in that repressive era.
“The Little House” reflects the trend in recent domestic hits like “The Wind Rises” and “Eternal Zero,” describing ordinary lives during WWII in a romanticized way. Even though Yamada voices his political stance by making repeated references to Japan’s ill-timed, aborted bid to host the Olympics, and by letting Takeshi bring the clarity of hindsight to Taki’s biased memories, the political and historical elements feel too watered down.
The film is set mostly inside the Hirai family’s house, authentically outfitted by production designers Mitsuo Degawa and Sue Daisuke, but the chipper lighting lends everything a squeaky-clean, brand-new look that’s slightly out of synch with the period. Kazuo Matsuda’s costumes achieve a colorful fusion of elegant kimonos and modish Western-style dresses. Other tech credits are OK.