Updated Recommendations

Over the past few days, I’ve been updating the “Recommendations” page with movies and shows I’ve watched in the past few months. These are the new entries:

Only Yesterday

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Twenty-seven-year-old Taeko Okajima dreams of the countryside. Despite being born and raised in Tokyo, she has always longed for a small hometown to return to like her classmates’ families. Now, she’s taking a trip to Yamagata to help with the safflower harvest and experience rural life for herself. While on the train, she begins to remember her childhood, and the memories continue flow as she settles into her temporary home.

For many years, Only Yesterday sat in licensing hell, held by a Disney that was mainly interested in the marketability of Hayao Miyazaki’s fantastical, family-friendly worlds while Isao Takahata’s more grounded stories remained in limbo. Now GKids possesses the license, and they have thankfully put in the effort to bring these movies the attention they deserve, including dubs and theatrical releases. Only Yesterday depicts a young woman who feels alienated and dissatisfied with city life, and as the movie examines her adolescence, it becomes clear that she has never truly felt at home. Taeko felt misunderstood by her sisters and stifled by her loving but overly stern father. The bumps and bruises of adolescence, both physical and psychological, are depicted with a sort of softness that doesn’t reduce them but makes them feel more relatable as Taeko reflects on the experiences that made her the woman she is today. Country life is quite romanticized when compared to the disconnect Taeko feels with her city origins, but viewed as a personal journey rather than an indictment of urban lifestyles, it makes for a beautiful, satisfying story.

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Missing Miss Hokusai

Most people are familiar with the works of Katsushika Hokusai, particularly the iconic “Great Wave off Kanagawa” ukiyo-e print, but few know that his daughter, Katsushika O-Ei, was a talented artist in her own right. She spent most of her life assisting and working with her father and was best known for her prints of beautiful women. Miss Hokusai, based on the manga Sarusuberi by Hinako Sugiura, tells a fictionalized version of her life, one characterized by her devotion to her blind younger sister as well as to her art.

Miss Hokusai eschews a traditional narrative structure, instead opting for an episodic approach. It’s an unusual approach to a film, one that has been widely criticized, but I thought it worked beautifully for the subject matter. The vignettes provide a more complete picture of O-Ei as a person; without having to unite them through a story, it gives snapshots of her personal and professional life and relationships. We see how she relates to her father, to her colleagues, to her sister, and to her art, without her being defined by any one aspect. O-Ei is certainly a woman who defies simple definition. From the very outset, she makes it clear that she is a woman with little interest in traditional femininity. She strides across a bridge over the Sumida River with her arms at her side, rather than the delicate, pigeon-toed gait with hands folded in front favored for women at the time. Instead of maintaining the home, as would be her expected role, she works side by side with Hokusai, explaining that neither of them cooks or cleans; rather, they just move when things get unlivable.

Historical fiction rarely focuses on women, so I especially applaud the decision to tell O-Ei’s story rather than that of her legendary father. That’s part of why I was so baffled by the number of reviewers who came away with the impression that the movie was about Hokusai himself, rather than the title character. This review by Brian Tallerico on rogerebert.com exemplifies that mistake. Tallerico seems unable to conceive that the movie is not Hokusai’s story told through the eyes of his daughter, but her own story. He claims the film “allows us to see him through his daughter’s eyes.” Hokusai is a prominent character and influence in her story, but make no mistake – O-Ei is the one driving the action in every scene. The dissonance between expectation and reality makes it difficult for Tallerico to fully immerse himself in the world of the movie and enjoy it for its own qualities.

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