KOKYÔ (Yôji Yamada, 1972)

“Our work will end here tomorrow.”

Someone on the Internet Movie Database identified this film as one of his ten favorites, possibly even among the top five, intriguing me. I had seen two other films by Yôji Yamada, A Distant Cry from Spring (1980), which I like a lot, and Twilight Samurai (2002), which I do not like; Kokyô was closer in time to A Distant Cry. I have now seen it, and it is indeed lovely.
     Kokyô is also known as Home from the Sea. It revolves around a young couple, Seichi (Hisashi Igawa, best actor Junpo Award) and Minko Ishizaki (Chieko Baisho, superb), and the work that they do. They cross the sea from the tranquil island where they live with their two daughters and Seichi’s father (Chishu Ryu, fine) and collect waste rocks from construction sites, dumping these into the sea. Their transport for their contributions to land reclamation, its engine failing, is a small boat that cannot compete with a 300-ton steel ship doing the same work; in slow motion, the massive release of rocks by the latter conveys how the Ishizakis’ life and prospects are being crushed by progress: a superlative instance of meaningful cinema. Alas, Yamada’s film is more often (beautifully) scenic than it is, as here, visually expressive.
     Agonized at having to give up both being his own boss and their caring island community, Seichi is slow to try to get a factory job in Onomichi that he has been alerted to; thus the Ishizakis’ predicament instances upheavals and job displacements afflicting Japanese society at the time. Yamada hews to a naturalistic, almost documentary line, even showing restraint in drawing the contrast between the island and sea and the noisy factory, where he will be working alone rather than side-by-side with Minko. However, it counts considerably that our introduction to industrial labor in the film has Yasuo, Seichi’s brother, having caught his hand in a lathe.
     Minko may be more practical, but she is just as sad as her husband about leaving, and she cannot even pretend to like the food in Onomichi, as he does as a matter of pride, having failed to support his family adequately where they all would have preferred to stay. Indeed, Grandfather elects to stay on the island, thereby encapsulating all that his son and daughter-in-law must leave behind.

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