The Youth of Kamiya Etsuko Review
On the 12th April, 2006 veteran film director Kazuo Kuroki slipped away at the grand old age of 75. He left behind a filmography that spanned 50 years, starting with documentary features in the 50s before switching to dramas in the 60s. He is perhaps best known to western audiences by his 1990 Samurai classic Ronin-gai and the war movies: Ashita and The Face of Jizo. Kuroki’s final film returns back to the subject of World War Two as the late director examines the lives of a young couple-to-be who are faced with some life altering decisions near the end of the war.
After losing both her parents in the final year of Word War Two, young Etsuko Kamiya is living with her brother Yasutada and her childhood friend Fusa, when she finds herself the romantic target of shy army officer Nagamasa Nagayo. The problem is that Etsuko is already in love with Nagamasa’s best friend Akashi, who is a long time friend of her older brother Yasutada. The feeling is mutual, but Akashi is an airforce pilot and facing a certain Kamikaze assignment in the near future, so he has resigned himself to getting Nagamasa and Etsuko together to make sure she is taken care of. With these sentiments in mind Akashi arranges a formal meeting between Nagamasa and Etsuko, but can Nagamasa’s gentleness and sincerity make up for the fact her heart belongs to someone else?
If that synopsis sounds vague it’s because The Youth of Kamiya Etsuko is an extremely basic film. In adapting Masataka Matsuda’s stage play for film, Kuroki has opted for strict adherence to the theatrical structure and built the screenplay around sequences of extremely long scenes where the viewer essentially becomes a fly on the wall peeking in on everyday life in wartime Japan. It’s a style that demands a lot of patience from the audience, but if you stick with it and invest in the protraction and dialogue you will be rewarded with a very endearing drama full of wonderfully nuanced comedic touches.
Most of the drama is hung on the wartime setting and the hesitant love triangle that is formed between Etsuko, Nagamasa, and Akashi. It’s a very clichéd set up; she loves the outgoing handsome pilot but he’s unavailable, and the guy who is available is the thoroughly dependable type. Yet, with the war raging on outside the confines of Etsuko’s hillside residence the entire affair is steeped in tragedy, and the fact we assess Akashi from not only Etsuko’s viewpoint but also from Nagamasa - who clearly has high affection for his best friend - evokes a lot more feeling for the young pilot’s plight than you’d get from a more elaborate wartime drama. But ultimately it is little comedic touches that elevate The Youth of Kamiya Etsuko above the norm. Kuroki’s screenplay is full of playful little moments, mostly coming from Nagamasa’s complete naivety and awkwardness at wooing the woman of his dreams. His gentle banter with best-friend Akashi is also amusing to sit in on.
The performances from the handful of actors that appear in the film are all excellent. The Youth of Kamiya Etsuko’s story is framed by a modern-day conversation between the now married couple of Etsuko and Nagamasa, so both Tomoyo Harada and Masatoshi Nagase find themselves in the unenviable position of playing characters that are not only 20 years younger than their actual age, but also 40 years older! They’re both well up to the task though, effectively recreating a geriatric feel in the modern day scenes even though they have very little make up to help them. When the timeline jumps back to World War Two they just about get away with portraying characters in their early 20s with very natural and subtle performances. Masatoshi Nagase in particular excels as the socially awkward Nagamasa, injecting a great deal of warmth and humour into the part. The supporting cast of Kaoru Kobayashi, Manami Honjou, and, Shunsuke Matsuoka also bring a lot of warmth to their roles.
It’s impossible to avoid comparing The Youth of Kamiya Etsuko to the work of the great Yasujiro Ozu, the influences are extremely obvious to anyone familiar with the old master’s work. In particular Kazuo has drawn influence from Ozu’s Season films and his most beloved opus: Tokyo Story. The Youth of Kamiya Etsuko isn’t quite in the same league as these classics, but it certainly does a good job of recreating the spirit and tone of Ozu’s work. That in itself elevates the film above most dramas coming out today.
PresentationThe slightly windowboxed anamorphic 1.80:1 transfer from Emotion is very pleasing. The print used is pristine, and colour reproduction is strong, with natural skin tones and almost no chroma noise and bleeding. Contrast and brightness levels are also very strong. The transfer is reasonably detailed although I wouldn’t exactly describe the image as pin sharp. There’s a slight layer of film grain throughout, which may have been reduced a little by some DNR (which would explain why the image isn’t quite so sharp), but aside from the occasional appearance of Edge Enhancements and even fewer appearance of Mosquito Noise, there’s barely any video artefacts to mention at all.
There’s only a Japanese DD2.0 Surround track on the DVD, and considering the film consist solely of a series of conversations it’s more than adequate to meets any sonic needs. In short, this is a pleasant, clean soundtrack: the audio is nice and clean, dialogue is clear and audible and the bass levels are satisfying. Although the track is encoded for surround sound, the rear speakers are only ever used for the one or two environmental effects and isolated score sequences that are used in the film.
Optional English subtitles are included, with no spelling or grammatical errors that I can recall.