One of the the most important jobs of a critic is to discover new talent, and to expose that talent to the world. Sometimes it is easy to find, as when Kore-eda Hirokazu appeared on the scene, or Steven Spielberg, or Martin Scorsese. Other times, when it holds promise but not brilliance, it is more difficult to see.
I should start off my review of The Harimaya Bridge by saying that I don’t think it’s a great film. It is, however, a good film (though less so on my second viewing), populated with people that we care about and situations that make us react to the inner and outer struggles going on in the movie. And it has something to say that’s important, said in a way that, after my first viewing, wrenched its way into my soul and refused to leave the residency of my brain.
I should point out that I may be biased towards this film. The director (Aaron Woolfolk) spent five years in Kochi, Japan, teaching as part of the JET program. I spent three years teaching in Tokyo Prefecture. Like Mickey (in the film) and the director (in real life), I have taught in Japan’s public school system. Mickey’s favorite student is a special needs student. One of my favorite students was a special needs student (as a whole, they were some of my favorite students to teach).
On the other hand, maybe I am the perfect person to review this film. If the director was able to stir up such deep-seated memories in me of my time in Japan (and do it both times I saw this movie), then surely he has succeeded in bringing this world to life. If he had stepped wrong in his portrayal of Japanese people, or of ESL teachers, I would have known.
The plot: two years after his son Mickey’s death in Japan, Daniel Holder (Ben Guillory) feels lost. After going to a concert with his brother, Joseph (Danny Glover), a concert featuring music by a young woman who died of leukemia, a concert put on by her father, Albert Tunney (Peter Coyote), who has staged many such concerts around the world, Daniel decides to retrieve his son’s artwork from Japan, in the hopes of exhibiting it around the country, much as Albert has done with his daughter’s compositions. Unfortunately, he carries a deep-seated hatred for the Japanese people, since his father was brutally tortured and killed while a POW there during World War II. Yet, when it becomes apparent that he is the only one who can go to Japan to retrieve the paintings, due to Japanese business practices, he reluctantly gets on a plane.
When he gets to Japan, he bullies the well-meaning education board members that worked with his son into helping him get those paintings back. The board members are Yuiko Hara (Shimizu Misa), Kunji Inoue (Yamazaki Hajime), and their karaoke-loving secretary, Saita Nakayama (Misono). Working from a list that Mickey (Victor Grant) put together of who he gave his artwork to, Daniel is particularly interested in a name that recurs over and over again: Noriko Kubo (Takaoka Saki), the woman Mickey married while in Japan.
This movie is concerned with cultural understanding, and it’s to its credit that none of the characters bend on principle. Also, this film contains two strong female performances: Shimizu’s and Takaoka’s, both necessary to give the film weight (and to act as ballasts against the father’s rage). I did notice, on my second viewing, that the material given to these actors does not always help flesh out their characters, and Guillory speaks as if he were performing onstage (and saying, “I came to Japan for a reason,” twice as a reason for his rudeness gets tiresome the first time he uses it). When there is no dialogue, however, or when a flashback occurs (the best ones being when Noriko remembers time spent with Mickey, or the day he was killed), the acting, camera work, and story all come together. In fact, if Woolfolk had concentrated more on Noriko and what she went through, I may have been able to recommend this film more enthusiastically.
Indeed, the film begins and ends with the story of the Harimaya Bridge (though we don’t hear the whole tale until the end), which would seem to suggest that the relationship between Noriko and Mickey is the most important aspect of this movie, and it is, but in an oblique way . The first time I saw The Harimaya Bridge, and the second time, the end of the story, and the last line in the film, are what stayed with me. For me, that last line is the aspect that should have been focused on more. “Love knows no boundaries, especially those set by society.” That sounds like it would make a great movie, doesn’t it?
On the other hand, Woolfolk (who also wrote the screenplay) is content to bide his time and not to rush either the shots or the story (though sometimes, the story sags a bit). In fact, the camerawork is quite good, which shouldn’t surprise anyone once they realize that the director of photography, Nakabori Masao, was the cinematographer for Maboroshi no hikari.
Again, I will restate that The Harimaya Bridge is a good film, not a great one. But, in its depiction of two cultures at war with each other, in its portrayal of friction between generations that can lead to heartache and despair, and in its message of letting go of past wrongs in order to be able to see people as they are today, it is an important film. Plus, I feel that there will be many more films like this in the years to come, where a person from one country or culture views another one through his or her camera lens. We are heading toward internationalism in all aspects of our life. Movies such as this one help us see that, yes, cultural differences separate us, but love and hate have no cultural boundaries. The only difference is, one of these emotions builds walls, while the other one builds bridges.
Note: All information about the cast and crew, as well as an interview with Danny Glover, who not only acts in the film but is one of its executive producers, can be found at the Harimaya Bridge Official Website: http://www.theharimayabridge.com/index.html
Note #2: In Japanese culture, the surname comes first, but in the film, the surname is given last, which I have followed here in regards to Japanese character names. I have given the names of the Japanese actors who play them, however, in their traditional Japanese order, with the first name following the surname. Confusing, I know.
Note #3: Whoever came up with the tagline “His hate led him to the love that saved him” should go back to writing shitty Hallmark cards. Not only is it trite, it’s not what the movie is about at all.