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Monthly Archives: August 2016

Big Joys, Small Sorrows a.k.a. New Times of Joy and Sorrow (Original title: Shin yorokobi mo kanashimi mo ikutoshitsuki) by Keisuke Kinoshita, Japan, 1986.

The last truly memorable feature in the diverse and prolific career of director Keisuke Kinoshita, Big Joys, Small Sorrows is not to be missed! A colorful, underrated Eighties Shochiku film, it lends credence to Alexander Jacoby’s assertion in A Critical Handbook of Japanese Film Directors that Kinoshita was “one of the leading postwar exponents of the studio’s bittersweet, subtly sentimental ‘Ōfuna flavor'”—a kind of melodrama centered around domestic concerns, often geared toward women. In Big Joys, Small Sorrows the setting for the familial activity is not one dwelling or town but a steady succession of enchanting lighthouses and related peripheries up and down coastal Japan. The film’s cinematography boasts a wealth of charming helicopter-assisted establishing shots showing each toudai and its surrounding scenery in their seasonable seaside glory. In this sense Big Joys, Small Sorrows could be said to possess a secondary function as a travelogue, and coupled with the beautiful, melancholic score these shots serve as a welcome refrain throughout its 130-minute duration.

If Big Joys, Small Sorrows sounds a little familiar that might be because it’s a remake of Kinoshita’s 1957 feature Times of Joy and Sorrow, which also follows a stoic and resilient lighthouse keeper employed by Japan’s Maritime Safety Agency. In contrast to some of his colleagues, the lighthouse keeper here has a cute, supportive, but sometimes disapproving wife, with whom he maintains a mixture of deep affection and humorous low-level irritability, which often yields entertaining dialogue. Along with their children, as the years wear on, the couple relocates from one lighthouse to the next, each time being visited by the lighthouse keeper’s widower father, who’s on in years. Sometimes characterized as a burden when he visits, the grandfather is enthusiastic to see his family—partially, it seems, because he misses them and is otherwise rather listless and lonely, but also because making such jaunts seems to be an indicator that he’s not quite ready to be placed in a nursing home. In typical tourist fashion, the grandfather eagerly snaps pictures of himself and other family members in front of the lighthouses and various landmarks of note, though it’s not altogether clear what he intends to do with the photos.

Like a lot of films, one thing that seems to make Big Joys, Small Sorrows work is that it presents an appealing amalgam of emotions. Here the mixture of moods and sensibilities isn’t far removed from, say, a Late Fifties Ozu staple like Equinox Flower, though Kinoshita’s film has occasional camera movement and a more pronounced sense of humor that may or may not be the result of the characters’ less guarded behavior. The poetics in Big Joys, Small Sorrows feel looser and less disciplined but overall the film might exhibit more of a joy for living. There is one scene that feels a little clumsy and out of place—a mini-disaster sequence in which one of the lighthouse keeper’s younger associates has a life threatening experience, prompting him to finally forego his bachelorhood and pursue getting married to a woman he’d half-heartedly courted. And it should be noted that in the midst of its narrative Big Joys, Small Sorrows does put forth an uncritically patriotic emphasis on Japan’s equivalent to the Coast Guard and Navy, to the extent that if the viewer isn’t paying attention to the story the film might look in parts like a high-budget recruiting reel. Nonetheless this ship stays afloat! Big Joys, Small Sorrows is a nicely shot, well acted film devised from a screenplay that feels like it took decades of accrued wisdom to write. As of press time the film has garnered an all too modest 6.1 rating on the Internet Movie Database, which is less an accurate assessment of its charms than another sign that Big Joys, Small Sorrows is due to be reappraised. At this point, given the film’s rather neglected status here in North America, it would be fortuitous if the Criterion Collection gave it a spine number. For now, though, Big Joys, Small Sorrows is available in their Hulu Plus library, waiting patiently for new viewers to discover it.

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