Yoji Yamada's four-decade career continues to evolve


TOKYO -- Director Yoji Yamada's has had the kind of career longevity that a young film school grad can only dream of. With his latest -- and 80th -- film, "Kabei" (Our Mother), the director adds another strong work to a career that has spanned six decades and includes the longest-running series in global film history, the 'Tora-san' movies. Perhaps even more remarkable is how Yamada's filmmaking blossomed and moved in new creative directions after he reached an age at which most directors have stopped working altogether.

Born in Osaka in 1931, Yamada joined Shochiku in 1954 after graduating from Tokyo University. He worked as a scriptwriter and assistant director before taking charge of his first film, "Stranger Upstairs," in 1961. It was in1969 that he made the first of the "Otoko wa tsuraiyo" (It's Tough Being a Man) series, which became known as 'Tora-san' after the main character. Over the next quarter century, there would be 48 films -- nearly always written and directed by Yamada -- about the unlucky-in-love traveling salesman, played in every outing by Kiyoshi Atsumi.

In 1978, Yamada's "The Yellow Handkerchief," based on a short story by American novelist Pete Hamill, won best picture at the inaugural Japan Academy Awards. ("Yellow Handkerchief," which premiered at this year's Sundance, set this time in a post-Katrina New Orleans, directed by Udayan Prasad and starring William Hurt, is based on the same story.)

Yamada has gone on to win best picture at the Japan Academy Awards three more times with "Musuko" (My Sons) in 1992, "Gakko" (A Class to Remember) in 1994 and "Tasogare Seibei" (The Twilight Samurai) in 2003. The last film defined a new phase in the prolific director's career and saw him nominated for a best foreign language Oscar in 2004. The first of a trilogy, all made with Yamada now in his 70s, the film brought the director worldwide critical acclaim and reinvigorated a cherished tradition of Japanese cinema -- the samurai movie.

While many were surprised at the new direction Yamada took with these films, some believe it was a logical result of Shochiku shifting all its production to its Kyoto studios, famous for its samurai dramas. "The home of the samurai period movie is Kyoto, and there's a lot of expertise in the area so it's not so unexpected that Yamada-san choose to make samurai films once Shochiku concentrated their studio production here," says Kiyotaka Moriwaki from the Cinematheque at the Museum of Kyoto.

While any Japanese directors making a samurai movie will inevitably be compared by some to the late great Akira Kurosawa, they are very different directors according to Moriwaki. "While Kurosawa was both influenced by American Westerns, and influenced them, Yamada is more Japanese in his style in many ways."

"Kabei" is another new departure of sorts for Yamada, dealing with the still-sensitive subject of Japan's wartime imperialism, including the often-overlooked brutality that faced dissenters at home. "Although Yamada-san has touched on social problems in previous productions such as the 'Gako' series, this is a more direct (look at) social and historical issues than anything he has made before," adds Moriwaki.

Few people had expected that the director of a marathon series of romantic comedies would later redefine the samurai movie genre and then go on to tackle such heavyweight subject matter at this stage of his career. Moriwaki believes there is more to come from the veteran filmmaker, despite his advancing years. "As the No. 1 director at Shochiku, and given the impressive quality of his recent work, there are still high hopes and expectations for Yamada."