Yajikita Dochu Teresuko Review
Most Asian film fans are at least partially aware of the wandering “vagabond of love” Kuruma “Tora san” Torajiro and his 48 films that make up one of the nation’s most beloved dramatic franchises. But he’s not the only iconic wanderer in the pantheon of Japanese literature, not least of whom are the characters of Yaji and Kita, a pair of crude misadventurers from Edo who travel along the Tokaido highway on a pilgrimage to Ise shrine in the famous early 19th century serial novel: Tokai Dochu Hizakurige. Written by Juppensha Ikku as a both a comedy and a traveller’s guide to the Tokaido, Hizakurige made Ikku’s cult heroes Yaji and Kita a household name and spawned both a spin off novel (Zoku Hizakurige) and numerous stage adaptations, covering many forms of Japanese theatre for decades to follow. It took until 1958 for a filmmaker (Yasuki Chiba) to try his hand at adapting Ikku’s tome in Yajikita Dochu Sugoroku, but there were no follow ups put into production. Then in 2005, the hippest screenwriter in Japan: Kankuro Kudo re-invented the characters for his directorial debut: Yaji and Kita: The Midnight Pilgrims, and in a radical contemporary twist, made them gay lovers in a surreal madcap musical that saw the duo travel not only across Japan, but time and space itself. It was very well received, and just two years later another filmmaker has returned to Ikku’s literary legacy in Yajikita Dochu Teresuko, this time returning the characters to their traditional roots as older, not so bright, friends on a simple journey across Edo-era Japan.
Yajikita Dochu Teresuko follows Yaji, a widower who lost his wife and son 5 years ago and now pines for popular Shinagawa courtesan, Okino, who takes advantage of his services to swindle cash out of her clients. As her status within her brothel declines, Okino finally decides to make a break for freedom and tricks Yaji into helping by feeding him a story about needing to visit her dying father. Into this misadventure stumbles Kita, a disgraced actor and old friend of Yaji’s who has recently botched a famous play in front of a live audience and has become the laugh of the town. Sneaking past the brothel’s guards, the trio embark on a journey across Japan in search of Okino’s father, stumbling across a succession of colourful characters and unlikely scenarios.
If Kankuro Kudo’s take on Yaji and Kita is like a brash, wild youth who roams around doing as it pleases, then Hideyuki Hirayama’s Yajikita Dochu Teresuko is its old unpretentious father, dealing with a much older Yaji and Kita and bringing them back to their literary roots. Hirayama’s film certainly lacks the flamboyance of Yaji and Kita: The Midnight Pilgrims, but it is a consistently amusing comedy-drama. The main reason for this is the central three characters. Okino is self-centred and devious, but she also brazenly keeps pointing out that this quality is in her job description as a courtesan, in doing so you cannot help but warm to her. As such, she’s a great counter-balance to the much simpler Yaji and Kita –who are a loveable a pair of hapless dreamers. Yaji is in lust with Okino, but as the journey progresses we see his feelings run far deeper and conflict with his memories of his wife in the most bittersweet of ways. Kita is for the most the comedy sidekick, disgraced, wallowing in self pity and surrounded by news of his failure, he is an observant and loyal companion for Yaji. His mood swings form the basis of many of the film’s funniest scenes and his reaction to alcohol is hilarious. Most importantly, you really feel the old, deep bonds between Yaji and Kita and the growing attachment both men develop towards Okino and vice versa, which lends the film tremendous heart. Like all good road movies, the actual events of the journey are not the driving force behind the film, but the development of the protagonists.
This isn’t to say that the incidental meetings and unwitting comic scenarios the trio find themselves in aren’t worthwhile, they’re very entertaining, but the episodic nature of these scenarios means some are more engaging than others – with the standout being the adventure with a young shape-shifting Tanuki that evokes the traditional myths about the creature to great comic effect. The episodic nature of the narrative ensures the pace of the film is fairly brisk, but when the team arrive in Okino’s hometown in the build up to the final act, there’s a certain level of contrivance and a rather clichéd diversion into melodrama that reduces the comedy and slows the pace down a bit. In spite of this Yajikita Dochu Teresuko manages to finish strongly and leave hope for a sequel.
The central performances are all excellent. Kyoko Koizumi subtly traverses the different facets (both private and personal) of Okino. Her pride and tricky nature masks the sincerity of her friendship with Yaji and Kita and Koizumi conveys this very effectively with a charming performance. Kanzaburo Nakamura doesn’t have many film roles to his credit, but this belies an extremely successful career as a kabuki actor that has made him a household name in his native country. With this in mind his excellent performance is par the course, imbuing Yaji with tremendous heart and naivety with a nuanced performance. It is Akira Emoto, the veteran character actor and prolific scene-stealer who adds another notch to his belt and steals the film, giving a performance that is both endearingly meek and wildly animated, his face contorting into a series of hilarious grotesqueries when drink turns Kita into a demon. It is an impressively controlled physical performance.
Backing up the cast, director Hideyuki Hirayama takes a restrained approach to the adventure. He dabbles with fantastical elements, but otherwise keeps the story grounded and focussed on simple character interaction and development. This is just as well, given the heritage the characters of Yaji and Kita have in the traditional arts of Japan. Indeed Hirayama embraces this heritage, peppering the film with numerous forms of Japanese theatre and song and dance, as well as a rakugo-esque prologue – all combining to give Yajikita Dochu Teresuko a rich, cultural feel, evoking the vibe of Edo-era entertainment.
And Yajikita Dochu Teresuko is very entertaining, it’s a complete change of pace from Yaji and Kita: The Midnight Pilgrims and has no link with that production beyond the use of the same protagonists. It most likely will not garner as much interest from Western fans; who tend to overlook gentle, traditional period comedy films. What a shame that is!
Emotion have released Yajikita Dochu Teresuko on DVD in two editions, a single-disc Standard Edition, and a 2-disc Limited Edition Gift Set called the Hana No Oedo Ban edition. This review is for the Standard edition.
Presented anamorphically at 1.82:1, Yajikita Dochu Teresuko has been lauded with a very strong transfer that features rich, vivid colours that are free from bleeding and barely feature any chroma noise, which combined with the lack of any mosquito noise, is indicative of excellent compression. Likewise contrast and brightness levels are very satisfying, offering a natural, bright image with good shadow detail. The print used is pristine bar the rare tiny black spot, and detail is good but not great, with Edge Enhancement present. The transfer is progressive, but a couple of interlaced frames have snuck in, probably down to incorrect flagging.
On the audio front we have a Japanese DD5.1 track, which sounds rich and pristine. Dialogue is very clear and the bass is resounding, imbuing the track with a very solid sound. Yajikita Dochu Teresuko is mostly dialogue based, with the front stereos and rears used or environmental sound and music, but when needed they kick in with a strong presence and provide a pleasing soundstage with strong dynamics – particularly when it comes to the film’s score.
Optional English subtitles are present, with no spelling or grammatical errors that I can recall.
Aside from a Theatrical Trailer, the only extra feature on the disc is a 37-minute Making Of Video Diary which is split up into short episodes that each cover a different day in the film’s production, usually with their own theme. For instance the 1st episode is a behind-the-scenes look at the shooting of a scene which features a cat. It follows the cat at the end of the take when it runs off camera and subsequently into the studio away from the crew, with its handlers clambering after it. The 2nd episode shows Akira Emoto and Kanzaburo Nakamura rehearsing for a scene, then starts jumping between the actual shooting of the scene and the rehearsal session to show how the actors built the scene up. It finally closes by showing some outtakes of Akira Emoto suffering for his art by being on the receiving end of a face-slap at the end of each repeated take.
There is no narration on the Making Of feature; instead we get the occasional text title floating on the screen, so the lack of subtitles isn’t quite so badly missed. Obviously the nature of watching un-translated footage does mean some episodes are more interesting than others, but you certainly get a good feel for how the film was made, and the episodes can be played individually from the extras menu, so you can break the full diary down into more palatable viewings.
Yaji and Kita return to their cultural roots in a gentle, warm-hearted comedy that offers a few belly laughs and a lot of smiles. Both excellently performed by the central trio of Nakamura, Emoto, and Koizumi, and directed with a certain roguishness from Hideyuki Hirayama, Yajikita Dochu Teresuko holds much to enjoy from any fan of good, old-fashioned sentimental comedy. The r2j DVD from Emotion offers good A/V presentation of the film, but unsubtitled extras. The expectedly high Japanese retail price is outside the comfort zone of many Western Asian film fans, but there’s a good chance this film won’t make it out of its native country on the DVD format.