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Yvonne Teh, Film Editor

 

Certain films leave an indelible mark on our memory, and come to be strongly associated with particular ideas, things or places. This thought came to mind on a recent trip to the northern Japanese island of Hokkaido.

When I visited picturesque Otaru, I recalled scenes from Shunji Iwai's Love Letter, a much-loved 1995 romantic-drama set largely in that port city. It triggered this reaction even though it was bright and summery when I visited, while the Otaru in Iwai's film tended to be on the snowy side.

When I spotted a couple of Japanese Coast Guard vessels in Otaru port, my thoughts immediately turned to the heroic protagonists of the popular Umizaru action-dramas - the first of which has been described as the Japan Coast Guard version of Top Gun.

Then there were times when, while passing through the Hokkaido countryside and taking in far more rustic - and sometimes more rugged - scenery than the stereotypical view of Japan, I got thinking about a couple of cinematic classics which made use of the island's rural settings in disparate ways.

The darker of the two films, Keisuke Kinoshita's A Legend or Was It? (1963), is about what happens to a Tokyo family who get caught in a cycle of violence and revenge after they move to an insular Hokkaido mountain village in the dying days of the second world war.

A devastatingly tragic film, it paints the least populated of Japan's four major islands as harsh and forbidding in the extreme, and is all the more unsettling for being out of step with the director's other offerings, such as Japan's first colour film, the chirpy Carmen Comes Home (1951).

Inspired by a New York Post column by American writer Pete Hamill that was later reprinted as a Reader's Digest short story, Yoji Yamada's The Yellow Handkerchief (1977) transposes to spacious Hokkaido the tale of a road trip made by a newly released ex-convict - in which the island can appear to be filled with hopeful possibility.

A heart-warming story of a taciturn man who opens up to two strangers and, with their encouragement, learns to hope again, the film cleaned up at the inaugural Japanese Academy Awards with six wins, including for best picture, best actor (Ken Takakura) and best director.

 

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