The Emperor in August / Sayonara / The Yellow Handkerchief Blu-ray Reviews: Three for Japan

All is fair (great, in fact!) in love, war, and on the road in this trio of classics from Twilight Time.
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American and Japanese. Remakes and originals. Love and war. Though they may all appear to be starkly different on the outside, this trio of Twilight Time releases from (or at least filmed in) Japan evinces we're only human on the inside.

The Emperor in August (2015, Shochiku Company)

Remaking a classic historical war film is never an easy task. Especially when the story focuses on internal political strife as opposed to the always bankable sight of what SCTV's Farm Film Report would likely refer to as "stuff gettin' blowed up real good." It's an ever harder chore to pull off a relatively action-less war movie when the original film is a grandiose (and highly acclaimed) Toho production starring the irreplaceable talent of the one and only Toshiro Mifune. But that didn't stop writer/director Masato Harada from accomplishing the impossible with this dramatic remake of Toho's 1967 Mifune masterpiece, Japan's Longest Day (Nihon no ichiban nagai hi).

Sporting the far more sublime title of The Emperor in August in English-speaking territories (and virtually the same name as its predecessor in Japan, Nihon no ichiban nagai hi ketteiban), this 2015 production depicts the turbulent final days of Japan's government before its surrender during World War II. Kōji Yakusho (Shall We Dance?) leads a somber, determined cast of Nipponese legends (Masahiro Motoki, Tsutomu Yamazaki) and a few fresher faces as well (Tori Matsuzaka, Erika Toda, and Kenichi Matsuyama) as we witness various shades of disarray prior to (and immediately after) Emperor Hirohito's acceptance of the Potsdam Declaration in 1945 ‒ even as government and military persona alike contemplate some good ol' fashioned mutiny.

One of the most recent titles to grace the Twilight Time library, this significant historical drama arrives on Blu-ray courtesy Shochiku Studios. As it is such a new film, it should come as no surprise that The Emperor in August makes for an immaculately crisp and clear presentation, and the MPEG-4 AVC 1080p transfer never disappoints (well, unless your eyes become a little overwhelmed by the constant use of colored filters, that is). Soundtracks for this release are available in both 5.1 and 2.0 DTS-HD MA, as are removable English subtitles. Special features for this Limited Edition release from Twilight Time include Harumi Fuki's score as an isolated DTS-HD MA 2.0 track, theatrical trailer, and liner notes from Julie Kirgo.

Sayonara (1957, Warner Bros.)

From the waning days of war in the Land of the Rising Sun, we turn our heads and hearts towards a postwar conflict of a different color: racism. One of the first American productions to confront the subject of interracial relationships and marriages, Sayonara finds Marlon Brando as an ignorant, Southern-bred, all-American Air Force ace ‒ who really is named Ace ‒ being grounded and brought to Japan during the Korean War. There, he is given the unrewarding task of dissuading crew chief Red Buttons (in a tear-swelteringly magnificent, serious supporting role) from marrying a Japanese woman ‒ something that was highly frowned-upon by the US Army at the time.

Alas, Ace is a rare example where you actually can fix stupid: not only does he begin to learn about Japan and its customs, he even falls for a popular local entertainer (Miiko Taka)! Meanwhile, Patricia Owens (The Fly), who plays Brando's bemused betrothed, experiences equally "foreign" feelings for a famous Kabuki dancer played by ‒ wait for it ‒ Ricardo Montalban in yellowface! Sure, it's a pretty bad casting call in this day and age, but I must confess seeing him don Kabuki makeup over his yellowface and dancing like a woman was one of the most marvelously sublimely weird things ever. Fortunately, Ricardo handles the role with far more elan than Brando did the year before in MGM's Teahouse of the August Moon, while Brando himself does a darn fine job being a regular Joe.

Miyoshi Umeki plays Buttons' love (the pair were so convincing, they won two of the four Oscars the film earned that year). Young James Garner also highlights this moving picture from director Joshua Logan, as based on the novel by James Michener (Hawaii, The Hawaiians). Franz Waxman provides the score; Irving Berlin supplies the theme song. As significant as the subject matter itself, Sayonara's gorgeous MPEG-4 AVC 1080p transfer is a major (pun intended?) upgrade over the ol' 4:3 DVD. A DTS-HD MA 2.0 soundtrack, English (SDH) subtitles, isolated score (also in DTS-HD MA 2.0), theatrical trailer (hosted by Miiko Taka) and Julie Kirgo's liner notes conclude this recommended (and, sadly, still relevant) title.

The Yellow Handkerchief (1977, Shochiku Company)

Japanese epics have fueled the fires imaginations in American filmmakers for years, resulting in just about everything from Star Wars to Speed in the process. Likewise, our neighbors in the Far East also found inspiration from western-made movies. By the time The Yellow Handkerchief (Shiawase no kiiroi hankachi) was made in 1977 ‒ a good twenty years after Marlon Brando bade audiences Sayonara ‒ the postwar wave had been paved over for another motif. Influenced (nearly unfathomably, at that) by a Tony Orlando tune and US journalist Pete Hamill, The Yellow Handkerchief proves even countries with excellent public transportation can find time to hit the road.

Yes, it's a Japanese road movie, kids! And if the title is starting to conjure up a suppressed movie memory, it may be because you were one of the ten people who saw the 2008 American remake of the same name. (Yes, we really did remake a Japanese movie originally influenced by American sources.) Here, the great Ken Takakura ‒ who had previously co-starred in The Yakuza and Bullet Train (the latter of which would later inspire Speed, incidentally) ‒ takes the lead as a convicted killer who finds himself heading home after being paroled, not knowing if his presence will be welcomed there. Along the way, he meets two other wanderers: a recently dumped and disheveled Tetsuya Takeda, and Kaori Momoi, who plays yet another unwitting victim of bad decisions we humans tend to make.

A little fun fact here: Japan inaugurated its own equivalent to the Oscars in 1978, dubbed the Japanese Academy Prize. Not surprisingly, this heartfelt piece from director Yoji Yamada would become the ceremony's first-ever winner, and The Yellow Handkerchief would earn 26 more awards. And it's easy to see why in this stellar Blu-ray release from Twilight Time, made possible yet again by the Shochiku Company. Presented in a near-perfect MPEG-4 AVC 1080p transfer, Yoji Yamada's The Yellow Handkerchief is accompanied by a DTS-HD MA Mono soundtrack with optional English subtitles. No special features are included with this release (somewhat shocking for a Twilight Time title), but Julie Kirgo's liner notes more than make up for the lack of extras.

Limited to only 3,000 copies apiece, The Emperor in August, Sayonara, and The Yellow Handkerchief are only available on Blu-ray from Twilight Time while supplies last.

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