Directing his 82nd feature in his 79th year, Yoji Yamada composes a sweet valentine to cinema in drama-docu hybrid “Kyoto Story.” Filmed on the street where long-defunct major Japanese Daiei Studios once stood, Yamada’s collaboration with co-director Tsutomu Abe and film students from Ritsumeikan U. bathes its simple love story in a warm glow of nostalgia for the days when moviemaking and life seemed much less complicated. Still playing in limited release since its May 22 domestic bow, pic boasts innocent charms that are ideal for fests and specialized broadcast, but offshore theatrical prospects appear slim.
IYamada and former assistant Abe set out their stall with archival footage while a female narrator (Rei Dan) describes the historic Uzumasa district in Kyoto as the “Hollywood of the Orient” back in the day. Many great studios once flourished including Daiei, producers of classics “Rashomon” and “Ugetsu.” Intro concludes with a message that Daiei no longer exists, “but its name still remains, as does the pride of the local people.”
Living in the heart of Daiei Shopping Street, Kyoko (Hana Ebise) helps out at her family’s laundry business and works part-time in the Ritsumeikan U. library. (Yamada is a guest professor on campus.) Expecting to eventually marry Kota (pop star USA, real name Yoshihiro Usami), an aspiring comedian whose parents run the tofu shop next door, Kyoko is thrown for a loop when visiting scholar Enoki (Sotaro Tanaka) starts sending her love poems written in the ancient Chinese characters he’s studying.
Kyoko’s choice between the two men in her life and Kota’s dilemma about whether to follow in his father’s footsteps or take the risky road into showbiz are played out in a manner that would not be out of place in one of the 1950s dramas Yamada worked on during his apprenticeship at Shochiku. But this only enhances the appeal for the older demos the movie is aimed at, and works wonderfully well alongside documentary inserts featuring oldsters remembering when Daiei Shopping Street and Daiei Studios thrived. In several delightful instances, interviewees play themselves in scenes from the scripted drama.
The emotionally satisfying message to emerge from this mix of contempo drama and nostalgic docu is that while life seems faster and more complex nowadays, the basic human need for love and security never changes.
Yamada and Abe elicit fine performances from pros and amateurs alike. With his hangdog face and ever-present hat, USA’s unfunny comic brings to mind Tora-san, the unsophisticated and unlucky-in-love character Yamada co-created and directed in 46 of the 48 feature outings which kept Shochiku’s coffers full between 1969 and 1995.
Shots of old trams trundling down the tracks at daybreak and images of shops which look like they’ve been around forever are lovely side attractions of Masashi Chikamori’s appropriately clean and unfussy lensing. Harumi Fuuki’s score blends old and new melodies to perfection. Other tech work is on the mark.