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August 01, 2011

Final Take

Final Take 1.jpg

Kinema no tenchi
Yoji Yamada - 1986
Panorama Entertainment Region 3 DVD

Filmed in between his regular assignments in the "Tora-san" series, Final Take is one of Yoji Yamada more personal films. The film is something of a love letter to home studio Shochiku, with nods to A Star is Born in its various tellings, a lightly veiled cinema a clef about Yasujiro Ozu, with a slight detour by way of Sullivan's Travels. There is the question I have to resolve regarding what seems to be missing from this DVD version as various sources state the running time is 135 minutes, while the Panorama DVD clocks in at 116 minutes. Possible missing scenes aside, the film is probably of most interest for this recreation of filmmaking in Japan in the early Thirties.

Koharu, a candy seller in a movie theater, is briefly interview by director Ogura, who thinks the young woman has the face and the voice to be a movie actress. What Koharu lacks, at least initially, is any sense of acting ability. After initial discouragement, Kohura slowly rises from extra work to small supporting roles, catching the eye of Ogura's assistant, Kenjiro. Dismissing the director's films as mere "flickers", Kenjiro aspires to make serious films addressing the issues of the day, a difficult proposition not only due to studio politics but the politics of Japan demonstrating its military strength. Koharu also faces trouble at home dealing with her alcoholic father, a former itinerant stage actor. The studio's main leading lady elopes just before filming commences on Ogura's next production, giving Koharu the chance to show her acting ability.

Final Take 2.jpg

Yomada includes some scenes showing what it was like to see movies in Tokyo at the time, with the huge billboards, the hawkers outside the theaters encouraging pedestrians to see the currently showing film, and the candy sellers walking up and down the aisles prior to the film start. In what appears to be one of the classier theaters, a silent film is on display, with a benshi, looking like a professor at a lectern to the right of the screen, provides narration. One of the two big sets is a recreation of Asakusa, the part of Tokyo where most of the movie theaters were located. The other major set is a recreation of Shochiku's Kamata Studio. One of the main musical themes is the "Shochiku Studio March", which Koharu sings near the end of the film.

There are also several scenes of filmmaking which are not too different from what might be scene in other movies about making movies. The one scene that did catch my eye was of the Ozu stand-in, Ogura, filming a scene with the camera almost at ground level. There is also a comic scene of two lovers in period costume, drenched in what was ordered to be a light spring rain. Kenjiro writes what is intended to be a serious film about a young girl sold into prostitution, only to be distressed to see that the screenplay has been transformed into a nonsense comedy that takes part of the title and leaves the rest behind.

One of the subplots involves Kenjiro's friendship with a man sought after by the government authorities. It's the kind of subject matter Yamada was able to explore more fully in Kabei, almost twenty years later. The friend appears at Kenjiro's room to hide a small package, the contents which are never revealed. Kenjiro and his friend are arrested by police who have presumably trailed the friend. There is a comic moment when one of the detectives, notices that Kenjiro has a book about Marx, unaware that it is about the Marx Brothers. Kenjiro is locked up in jail after taking a beating, impressing his fellow inmates by being on speaking terms with a famous actress. Kenjiro is next seen returning to the studio, with Ogura asking if he had finished his writing assignment. It is this particular sequence that seems to have been abridged based on the published running time. The cut from Kenjiro in jail to his next returning to the studio seems very abrupt. It is in jail where Kenjiro gains a sense of value of "flickers" and making movies for the masses.

The final film within the film is titled Floating Weeds. That title, and the presence of Chishu Ryu in a small role, are the clearest links to Ozu. This is the kind of film that would initiate a guessing game for those with some knowledge regarding Japanese film history regarding who some of the other characters are modeled after. Also appearing are Tora-san himself, Kiyoshi Atsumi as Koharu's father, and Tora-san's sister, Chieko Baisho, as Kuharu's neighbor. As befitting a film about Japan's studio system, the director whom Yamada served as assistant, Yoshitaro Nomura, is credited here as the producer. The title has been translated as "Heavenly Cinema World", and the film release coincided with Shochiku's leaving Kamata for Ofuna. While the film was made at the time as a tribute to Japan's filmmaking past, in regards to Yoji Yamada's lengthy career, Final Take seems like an opportunity taken to touch on themes that would be explored again in greater depth, with fewer commercial or political restraints.

Posted by Peter Nellhaus at August 1, 2011 08:22 AM