Haikei, Chichiue-sama starrs Ninomiya Kazunari (of Arashi and Clint Eastwood’s Letters from Iwo Jima) and is a gentle drama about a traditional ryotei (Japanese restaurant serving kaiseki or traditional Japanese cuisine) in Kagurazaka, a part of Tokyo that retains its old-world roots, traditional restaurants and geisha houses. It is often called hana no machi or flower town (pleasure quarter) where there is an abundance of bars and drinking spots run by retired geishas.

Ninomiya’s character Ippei is a young itamae (traditional Japanese chef) who has been apprenticed to Ryu-san, a legendary itamae at the ryotei Sakashita, for seven years. Sakashita is run by Ritsuko who has taken over the reins from her mother Yumeko, a forma geisha.

The drama begins when Yumeko’s danna (common-law husband and Ritsuko’s father), the main figure behind Sakashita and a powerful minister, collapses and is taken to hospital. With his demise, the real estate developers who have had their eyes on the old and venerated property move to buy the restaurant’s land, and Sakashita’s world is turned upside down as it is forced into the 21st century. Ritsuko who has been trying hard to keep Sakashita afloat is torn between staying true to her mother’s dreams of keeping the restaurant as it is and fighting to save the restaurant in whatever necessary form.

I was particularly touched by the scenes in which Yumeko has to deal with her danna’s death. As a mistress, she and her family are unable to officially attend his wake and can only watch the proceedings from a respectable distance. Yet after the funeral, she receives a visit from his wife to thank and acknowledge her role in the life of the man they both loved. In a society where everyone’s role is specific, respected and acknowledged, it was a very poignant moment, although it is a situation which I would find difficult to accept or understand. Yet I somehow felt deeply touched by it.

While this is happening, Ippei’s new assistant Tokio arrives straight out of juvie but willing to learn. He also has to deal with his mother Yukino, a former geisha who runs a nearby bar.

Haikei, Chichiue-sama (loosely translated as Dear Father) is how Ippei always ends the narration of each episode, as imaginary letters to a father he has never met. It’s a wonderful drama series and harks back to a bygone era where a man’s worth was measured by his dedication to his chosen path, the integrity of his intentions and his loyalty to the people around him. We follow Ippei as he stumbles through the uncertain future of Sakashita, falls in love with a girl who will only converse in French (Kagurazaka is a Francophone town) and his search for his father whom his mother refuses to name. It’s a glimpse into the watery world of Japanese entertainment and pleasure, and the silent and sometimes harsh rules binding the people who live in that society.

I really enjoyed this series and there were several episodes which made me cry. It’s a heart-warming story of a Japan that is slowly slipping away.

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Film: Letters from Iwo Jima

16 November, 2009

I stayed up last night to watch Letters from Iwo Jima directed by Clint Eastwood and got to bed about 2ish (aargh, why did they have to put it on so late? I need my eight hours sleep!) But I’m glad I did because the film was amazing. My tv was too far and I was in bed, so I couldn’t really read the subtitles in English, but the Japanese script was understated, powerful and poignant. The film had an all Japanese cast headed by Watanabe Ken and Ninomiya Kazunari (who is band-mates with my other favourite Matsumoto Jun from Gokusen) with some American soldiers appearing towards the end of the film.

Letters from Iwo Jima opens with the discovery of a cache of letters buried in one of the many caves dotting Iwo Jima and follows the Japanese army’s last stand against the American navy. The letters belong to the soldiers left behind to defend the volcanic island, and we find out about the lives and fears of these soldiers, most of them very young, afraid and disillusioned as they try to fight for their emperor and country.

I knew this would be a sad film, as all war films are, but I didn’t expect it to be beautiful. There was a quiet diginity to the main characters in the film, although there have been some criticism regarding the authenticity of some of the viewpoints (and the fact that the most sympathetic characters had visited America prior to the war and therefore had a soft spot for their enemy). A lot of the Japanese fanaticism was toned down, barring a few characters, but what I thought was the strength of this film lay in the human-ness of the characters, especially the young private Saigo played by Ninomiya Kazunari. He wasn’t a blind fanatic, he didn’t want to fight, he hated the dreaded Kempeitai, Japan’s secret police who stripped his family of their livelihood, and just wanted to go back to his wife and child whom he was yet to meet. In fact, he was more like the young men my Japanese grandfather used to speak of when I questioned him about the war for my school project. None of the men he knew went to their deaths with ‘Banzai’ on their lips, but they all cried out for their mothers.

I’ve seen quite a few Japanese war dramas and was impressed that Eastwood tried not to stick too much to the general stereotypes prevalent in the genre. The characters seemed more real to me. In one scene Eastwood shows Saigo receiving his conscription paper and his wife begging for him to be spared, only for some of her patriotic neightbours to state that they too have all lost their men to the war and that she would just have to bear it and do her duty to her country. There is fear, uneasiness and a quiet chaos in Eastwood’s film.

For me, it was enlightening to see a different kind of film emerging. Just as in the West, as the years pass, we can look at the events of WWII with new eyes and discuss what happened in new ways, trying to understand the events without censoring ourselves too much.