The Little House (Chiisai ouchi): Berlin Review

Chiisai Ouchi Berlin Film Festival - H 2014
The Little House

Chiisai Ouchi Berlin Film Festival - H 2014  

The Japanese answer to a Hallmark Channel original movie.

Hearts flutter beneath chic kimonos in wartime Tokyo and secrets are carried to the grave in Yoji Yamada’s underheated melodrama, adapted from an award-winning novel.

While it’s admirable that the Berlin Film Festival maintains loyalty to a number of returning directors, it does neither the filmmaker nor the audience any favors by offering up a competition slot to numbingly conventional commercial fluff. That’s the case with Japanese veteran Yoji Yamada’s soapy melodrama The Little House, a stilted adaptation of an acclaimed novel about a clandestine affair in an upper middle-class Tokyo household in the period before and during World War II. Unconcerned with subtlety or economy, this lethargic tale of longing glances and thwarted passions might appeal to nostalgic grandmas in Japanese multiplexes, but others will likely find it a big yawn.

Yamada was at the Berlinale last year with Tokyo Family, his poorly received modern-day remake of the revered Yasujiro Ozu classic, Tokyo Story. In order to make it work onscreen, the domestic drama of Kyoko Nakajima’s award-winning source novel could have used a little of Ozu’s peerless emotional restraint and nuance in exploring characters not prone to open expressions of their feelings. Instead, Yamada and Emiko Hiramatsu’s plodding screenplay spells out the significance of every event large or small, hard-selling the sentiment with Joe Hisaishi’s syrupy Western-style score.

A journeyman studio director with Shochiku since 1954, the 83-year-old Yamada has pumped out an astonishing 82 features, more than half of those belonging to the popular Tora-san series, about a traveling salesman and his romantic misfortunes.

Given that Yamada lived through the era depicted in the central story of The Little House, one might have expected evidence of personal investment and a bittersweet look back on those turbulent years. Instead there’s an overriding artificiality to what’s onscreen, from the unlived-in period sets and costumes to the digitally enhanced twinkling night skies and mainly sound stage exteriors, awash in admittedly pretty old Technicolor hues. Were this a deliberately stylized statement it might have been interesting, but the film has no such edge. It just feels hopelessly old-fashioned, bearing the anonymous signature of a for-hire job.

The contemporary frame kicks off with the funeral of the elderly Taki (Cheiko Baisho), whose great-nephew Takeshi (Satoshi Tsumabuki) had been coaxing the old woman to write her memoirs. That triggers a jump back to 1936, when the young Taki (Haru Kuroki) leaves her hometown in rural northern Japan and goes to Tokyo, ending up a maid in the titular red-roofed storybook cottage on a hillside. She works for toy manufacturer Masaki Hirai (Takataro Kataoka) and his beautiful wife Tokiko (Takako Matsu), taking care of their young son, whom she nurses through polio, earning the family’s gratitude when her daily massages help restore his ability to walk.

Punctuated by the older Taki’s endless “And then…” voiceovers, the film shifts back and forth between the 1930s and ‘40s and the period before her death, with Takeshi prodding her not to gloss over the more troubling historical chapters. While the action takes place largely inside the house, there’s lots of passing talk about the Fall of Nanking, the hopes for national prosperity and a successful Olympic bid, and the buildup to war. But the sociopolitical context is strictly perfunctory.

The suds start churning with the arrival in the house of Masaki’s new colleague Itakura (Hidetaka Yoshioka), a promising young graduate whose reedy physique and wire-frame glasses spell “sensitive artist type.” That excludes him from the men’s discussions of conflict and commerce, so Itakura wanders off to bond with the women. His sweet nature quickly turns the head of Tokiko, and though her feelings remain undeclared, of the pure-hearted Taki too.

Taki observes in silence as her beloved mistress’ friendship with the cultured young man blossoms, while clueless Masaki keeps pushing his wife to help Itakura find a suitable bride. When the maid becomes aware of local gossip and possible scandal, she intervenes just as Itakura has been drafted to fight in the war.

The burning secret on which the entire plot hangs seems awfully tame by contemporary standards, making The Little House a decidedly soft entertainment. The revelation that emerges when Takeshi and family go through his great aunt’s papers will surprise only those audience members who have been asleep. (Which is possibly quite a few.)

Yamada and Hiramatsu seem duty-bound to include a lot of peripheral characters and minor incidents that add little to the plot (though I could have taken a bit more of Tokiko’s “mannish” female friend). And scenes tend to run on and on, with a ton of talk to convey a paucity of essential information. For instance, the negotiation over what to do with an extra classical music recital ticket seems to go for days, when most of us will know instantly who’s going to turn up in the empty seat next to Tokiko.

Performances are, let’s just say, a little large. Local star Matsu is no doubt helping to sell tickets, but her characterization is often downright bizarre. Tokiko is supposed to be a stylish, independent-minded woman for those times, unafraid to stand up to her husband in a disagreement. But mostly she seems a dim bulb in nice outfits. Kuroki is touching and demure but one-note as the young Taki, even if it remains a mystery how this sweet, shy girl turned into the woman known to her family as a crotchety old loner. With his mop of hair and nervous-rabbit demeanor, Yoshioka will be few women’s idea of a dreamboat.

The film has gotten off to a solid start at the Japanese box office, where Yamada’s antiquated style still has admirers. In international markets and even at festival showings, however, most audiences are likely to find this prim romance hokey, dull and dramatically unconvincing.

Venue: Berlin Film Festival (Competition)

Production company: Shochiku

Cast: Takako Matsu, Haru Kuroki, Takataro Kataoka, Hidetaka Yoshioka, Satoshi Tsumabuki, Chieko Baisho

Director: Yoji Yamada

Screenwriters: Yoji Yamada, Emiko Hiramatsu, based on the novel “Chiisai ouchi,” by Kyoko Nakajima

Producers: Hiroshi Fukasawa, Hiroyuki Saito

Director of photography: Masashi Chikamori

Production designers: Mitsuo Degawa, Daisuke Sue

Music: Joe Hisaishi

Costume designer: Kazuo Matsuda

Editor: Iwao Ishii

Sales: Shochiku

No rating, 136 minutes