• Yellow Handkerchief, The

    Released by: Twilight Time
    Release date: November 14, 2017
    Directed by: Yoji Yamada
    Cast: Ken Takakura, Chieko Baisho, Tetsuya Takeda, Kaori Momoi, Hachiro Tako, Hisao Dazai, Mari Okamoto, Kiyoshi Atsumi
    Year: 1977
    Purchase From Screen Archives

    The Movie:

    After being dumped by his girlfriend, Kinya Hanada (Tetsuya Takeda) quits his job and buys a car, planning on leaving his depressed situation behind. Afraid he’ll look like a country hick, he decks himself out in a cowboy hat, white jacket, and wooden sandals, making himself look like exactly that. He takes off for Hokkaido, where he meets fresh young Akemi Ogiwa (Kaori Momoi), who’s fleeing her own domestic problems, which includes a cheating boyfriend. Akemi has little interest in Kinya, but he convinces her to ride with him as he travels across Japan’s northernmost island. Along the way, they meet a mysterious older stranger, Yusaku Shima (Ken Takakura), at the beach, and before they know it, he’s riding along with them. While stopping for the night, Kinya gets himself and Akemi a room together by pretending that she’s his wife, while Yusaku gets his own room. Akemi is resistant, but Kinya assures her that he won’t try anything funny. Needless to say, he does (in the film’s one cringe-inducing moment), bringing Akemi to tears and resulting in Yusaku barging into the room.

    Disaster averted, Akemi decides to leave the group, as does Yusaku. A friendly meal, however, brings the trio back together, and they decide to continue their journey together. They have their ups and downs, but as time passes, Yusaku’s mysterious background is slowly revealed, and Kinya and Akemi reveal their true colors as caring, compassionate human beings.

    Based on the short story “Going Home” by American newspaper columnist Pete Hamill, The Yellow Handkerchief is a watershed moment in the history of Japanese cinema, a film so restrained and realistic in its approach that it traverses the language barrier to present a portrait of life and labor in Japan easily identifiable to Western viewers. Though ostensibly the story of three lonely strangers who come together through abject circumstances, its primary focus is on the elder Yusaku, whose gruff but quiet exterior hides both wisdom and emotional turmoil brought about by a difficult past. When Yusuka tells a defiant Kinya how to love a woman, it’s obvious that he’s hiding something, and Ken Takakura’s performance is so effectively nuanced that it’s easy to see why he became known as Japan’s last great acting superstar.

    Born under the name Goichi Oda in pre-war Japan, Takakura spent his high school years boxing as an extracurricular activity; it was a period that helped form the future actor’s streetwise exterior that resonated so strongly with later audiences. After graduating from college in 1955, he attended an audition for Toei Studios, and the next year debuted in his first feature film. In all, he starred in over 200 films, not only in Japan but also in China and the United States. In fact, it was his relationship with mainland Asian cinema that prompted the Chinese government to issue a statement upon his death recognizing all he had done to bring the Chinese and Japanese people together through his work. Even before winning his first Japanese “Oscar,” Takakura had already made headlines in the United States by starring in Sydney Pollack’s The Yakuza in 1974. He remained active in film until the late 1990s and finally retired in 2012, two years before his death from lymphoma.

    While domestic dramas centered around salarymen had been a part of Japanese cinema since the earliest days of film, few directors took charge of the subgenre like writer/director Yoji Yamada. But while he may best be known for his Tora-san movies, it was one of his most realistic departures from the series that won him the first Picture of the Year award at the Japan Academy Prize, an annual award ceremony akin to the Academy Awards in the United States. It was the first of four Yamada films to win, just as it represented the first of four Best Actor awards to go to lead actor Takakura.

    The Yellow Handkerchief is a work of filmic art, a Japanese road-trip movie that feels familiar because it’s been emulated so many times since. The perfect melding of poignant melodrama, bittersweet romance, and unconventional comedy, it became something of a template for future art films, though none founded on this mold has better handled its characters and their backstories. Handkerchief is never less than genuinely subtle and sublime, beautiful and heartbreaking, with moments of indisputable hilarity; and its nearly two-hour running time flies by in too quick a measure. When it’s over, you may find yourself wanting to start it up again. Don’t resist; just enjoy another ride across Japan's backroads and small towns. It’s rare that we find works of such power that they continue to captivate us no matter how many times we see them, but this is one such work. When speaking of the unexpected—and sometimes unwanted—places his life has taken him, Yusaku says, “I don’t even know how all this happened,” and in so doing, sums up the story of all our lives.


    The Yellow Handkerchief comes to Blu-ray via Twilight Time, who has released the film in glorious 1080p high definition with an MPEG-4 AVC encode. Spread across a single BD50 and given a high bitrate, the film is presented in its original theatrical aspect ratio of 2.35:1. One might conclude from the first minute or two that it bears a transfer that errs on the soft side; nothing could be further from the truth. As its opening credits begin to roll, the film quickly settles into its pristine and detailed image, one that reveals every aspect of its urban and rural settings equally, from the beauty of the big city to the squalor of the small towns. Facial closeups are betrayed by an extraordinary degree of delineation, with bumps and lines and moles and age spots revealing every trace of age-related wear. Adding an extra touch are pastel colors that stand out in their vividness against more naturalistic backdrops. Clothes and billboards and motor vehicles stand in bright relief against their earthen environments. Whether night or day or interior or exterior, the entire film is brightly lit, leaving no room for crush; and there’s neither noise nor evidence of DNR or sharpening tools. A minor patina of grain reveals the movie’s 35mm base without dismantling the crisp and inviting images. In short, the transfer is as perfect as the film itself.

    Twilight Time has opted for an English DTS-HD Master Audio 2.0 (Mono) track to aurally display the film’s conversations and score. The track is fine. Driven by dialogue, long patches are score-free, which isn’t necessarily a bad thing. While composer Masaru Sato was well known for crafting some of the most important and distinguished scores for some of Japan’s most famous films (including multiple Akira Kurosawa works and Toho’s sci-fi classic The H-Man, 1958), the infrequent bouts of musical humor that accentuate key scenes are a bit off-putting at first, at least until one grows accustomed to them. Since these short outbursts do not coincide with dialogue, there’s never any danger of music and verbal discourse abutting each other. In short, dialogue is clear and easy to understand, though English-language speakers may want to watch the film with the subtitles turned on. These subtitles come on automatically when play is selected but are removable. The score itself is also free of hiss and other defects.

    The disc contains no extras, though there is an on-screen listing of TT’s BD releases so far. Discs that have gone into moratorium are listed as such. Thankfully, an 8-page book is included, and we advise any and all collectors to read it (though only after viewing the film). Written by esteemed film historian Julie Kirgo, they compress a great deal of information into a small frame, from a brief history of Yamada’s work to a dissection of the film and its background, to a discussion of Takakura and his talented costars. When Kirgo writes about Takakura “with whom, okay, this writer has an imaginary relationship that transcends death,” she may be writing for a whole segment of fandom both inside and outside Japan, women and men for whom Takakura represents the ideal mate, quiet, unassuming, and possibly lovelorn.

    Twilight Time’s release is limited to 3,000 units.

    The Final Word:

    Yoshi Yamada’s The Yellow Handkerchief is a superb film, and Twilight Time’s Blu-ray is a revelation. There’s no other comparable way to watch the film. Forget the standard-def DVD, the Blu-ray blows it away. Here is a film worth repeat viewings, and lovers of Japanese cinema—and Ken Takakura in particular—will want to upgrade.

    Christopher Workman is a freelance writer, film critic, and co-author (with Troy Howarth) of the Tome of Terror horror film review series. Horror Films of the Silent Era and Horror Films of the 1930s are currently available, with Horror Films of the 1940s due out in 2018.

    Click on the images below for full sized Blu-ray screen caps!