If thinking about the paranoia films described on Calendar's Page 1 depresses you, it depresses me too, profoundly. The great good news is there are remedies at hand. Two films, "The Makioka Sisters" and "Smooth Talk," have virtually slipped into town and they are to the brutish bunch as cherry blossoms are to cannon balls.
Their productions are as unalike as you could imagine. "The Makioka Sisters" is 70-year-old Japanese master Kon Ichikawa's 65th film and perhaps his cumulative statement; it is a complex family drama set in 1938 and it is rapturously, swooningly beautiful, probably the most visually beautiful single film I can remember seeing, and that includes the shock to the senses that "Gate of Hell's" color was when it burst upon us all.
"Smooth Talk," at the Cineplex, Beverly Center and the Brentwood, is director Joyce Chopra's first feature, some may remember her earlier documentaries, including "Joyce at 34"; it's low key, small town, utterly contemporary. It was made originally for the American Playhouse series, and it looks appropriately modest.
What the two films share--in addition to women as their pivotal characters--is subtlety, a perception of emotion and behavior and a knowledge of human character so deep as to be almost subliminal. This comes in equal parts from their directors and casts, and from the writers whose stories have been adapted here, Junichiro Tanazaki and Joyce Carol Oates.
Junichiro Tanazaki, who died in 1965, has been called possibly Japan's finest modern novelist no more recently than in the current New York Review of Books, which touches on "The Makioka Sisters" in a discussion of the American appearance of his novel "Naomi." (Disturbing and hypnotic in his descriptive powers, he was also eyebrow-raisingly fetishistic, although "The Makioka Sisters" is Tanazaki in straight time, so to speak.)
He regarded women with a fascination bordering on adulation, and Ichikawa's style complements that fervor and gives it an almost palpable presence. In an early scene, one of the four beautiful, aristocratic Makiokas is powdering her older sister's shoulders as they dress for the theater. Her back at the V of her kimono is flawless, and as the younger one gazes at its luminous surface she is moved to put her cheek against it. It's a startling moment because Ichikawa has made the gesture irresistible--we feel as though we had touched that scented warmth too.
In its denseness of characters and its story of a highborn family brought to lesser days, "The Makioka Sisters" is like glowing Japanese Chekhov, a combination of "Three Sisters" and "The Cherry Orchard." Its women are as headstrong, mercurial, enigmatic, complex and fascinating as Chekhov's; they are also deeply loving of one another. What gives Ichikawa's film its lift is that there is still vitality to this gentry; the two older sisters have married slightly beneath them and it is these husbands who keep the whole entourage from stagnating in the exquisiteness of Osaka. (At the opening the four sisters have gathered, ritually, to walk among the snowdrift of cherry blossoms; one explains her husband's absence by saying with delicate malice that he is "a stranger to blossoms.")
There is also a rollickingly sly undertone to the family's years-long endeavor to find a suitable husband for pretty, shy Keiko (shyly seductive, as it turns out) so that her younger sister can marry and/or get on with her life. (Dowries, recent family scandals and inter-family feuds are all involved.) And all this as the Makioka's insular, artistic world is doomed to go straight to hell, since the period is between the Japan invasion of Manchuria and Pearl Harbor.
Ichikawa maps his saga with an extraordinary manipulation of design and color: the Makioka's sprawling ancestral house is mahogony and teak, it is dark and comforting and sheltering. The second eldest sister's house has unexpected stained glass panels in its pine walls; it is already looking Westward. Architecture, costume, color, texture--and particularly Ichikawa's control of light--have been used to sublime effect; they convey character, emotion, in a way we have rarely seen, and they make "The Makioka Sisters," at the Monica 4-Plex, is not only the year's, but possibly the decade's discovery.
For her part, Joyce Carol Oates' surgically specific prose has dealt movingly with young people and with what she has called heroic struggles "to define personal identity in the face of incredible opposition." The story that Tom Cole has expanded carefully into "Smooth Talk" is her O. Henry Award winner, "Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been?" which has all the terror of watching a cobra and a sparrow--and identifying with the sparrow.