Postcard: Film Review

"Postcard" doesn’t push any envelopes in the tradition of anti-war films.

Japan's nominee for the best foreign language Academy Award is the 49th and final film from Japanese director Kaneto Shindo.

TOKYO, Japan –They say the older you get, the clearer you recall the past. Postcard, directed and written by 89-year-old Kaneto Shindo, one the most illustrious directors and arguably greatest living screenwriter in Japan, looks like it could have been made just after Japan’s surrender in 1945. So raw is its anger and indignation it has more life than most contemporary Japanese films or TV dramas that encase that period in gracefully tragic, even heroic nostalgia.

Scholars of Japanese film or history should ponder why Shindo still feels the need to excoriate the damages of war for his 49th and last film, even if Postcard doesn’t push any envelopes either in cinematic form or in the body of anti-war films. Except for a senior domestic audience, mainstream distributors and festivals may be irked by its clamorous and sentimental aspects, which are a far cry from Shindo's gentle, emotionally restrained humanist post-war films like The Children of Hiroshima or his profound and abstract masterpieces like Onibaba and Naked Island. Just as Louis Malle recreated an episode from his childhood to exorcize his guilt in Au revoir les enfants, there are shades of Kaneto Shindo's past as a soldier in his indictment of the military’s impersonal decisions that drastically affect ordinary lives.

Low-ranking soldier Keita Matsuyama (Etsushi Toyokawa) shared a bunk bed with Sadao Morikawa (Naomasa Musaka) until their 100-man unit was sent to different postings according to lots drawn by their superiors. On the night before Morikawa was shipped to Manila, he gave Matsuyama a postcard from his wife Tomoko (Shinobu Otake), and asked him to bring it back to her to let her know he read and appreciated it. However, it is not until Matsuyama has dealt with other consequences of the war in his personal life that he is able to keep his promise. The centerpiece of the film is the one night Matsuyama spends with Tomoko, as they both rage against the injustice of determining a person’s life by drawing lots. Pitting the former’s guilt at being a random survivor (one of six out of 100) against the latter’s grief and destitution, Shindo elicits a fiery piece of ensemble acting from Toyokawa and Otake, that culminates in a cathartic break with the past. The closing image of the two carrying water buckets on a pole is Shindo’s final tribute to the salt of the earth, a lyrical allusion to the opening scenes of his Naked Island where Nobuko Otawa carries water as a metaphor for accepting life’s baggage, physical or spiritual.

The flashbacks to Tomoko’s horrendous sufferings during and right after the war makes intriguing parallels with Koji Wakamatsu's representation of women on the homefront Caterpillar. In startling contrast to the stiff-upper-lipped stoicism of civilians depicted by humanist directors like Kinoshita, Kurosawa and Shindo himself, there is a lot of brawling, wailing and physically demonstrative behavior, magnified by extreme close-ups that make the protagonists’ faces grotesquely contorted. Perhaps this reflects fewer hang-ups in expressing the truth 65 years on. The comical representation of a petty local official Izumiya (Ren Osugi) sometimes ruins the pathos and gravitas, bringing the drama to the level of farce, and diffuses the sinister nature of the whole neighborhood thought-police during the war.

Tokyo International Film Festival, Competition.
Sales: Tokyo Theatres Co.Production: Kindai Eiga Kyokai, Watanabe Shoji/Plandas.

Cast: Etsushi Toyokawa, Shinobu Otake, Naomasa Musaka, Ren Osugi, Akira Emoto, Mitsuko Baisho.
Director-screenwriter: Kaneto Shindo
Producer: Jiro Shindo
Director of photography: Masahiko Hayashi
Production designer: Hirokazu Kanakatsu
Sound: Satoshi Ozaki
Editor: Yukio Watanabe
No rating,114 minutes.