BERLIN -- "They don't make 'em like this anymore," is what one would say about "About Her Brother" ("Otouto"), Yoji Yamada's first contemporary drama in a decade, about a widow's bottomless love for her prodigal brother and other lives touched by her kindness. Only Yamada, 79 and director of more than 70 films, has the confidence, craft and cache to make it so orthodox and melodramatic, and still claim a Closing Film slot at Berlinale. Invitations to other big festivals will follow suit, with sales most ripe in Asian markets with a "Tora-san" fanbase, especially Taiwan.
Younger auteurs like Kiyoshi Kurosawa or Hirokazu Koreeda have tried their hand at family drama -- that most canonized of genres in Japanese cinema. Whereas they project modern neuroses that gnaw at the family's fabric, Yamada's take overflows with Capra-esque goodwill and nice characters. He lets many a farcical or tearful scene run beyond its course, but he also catches some sublime moments when characters' dignity rises above their misfortune or unfulfilled existences.
"Otouto" is an homage to Kon Ichikawa's 1960 film of the same title, but like Yamada's 1991 film "Musuko," it is more of a contemporary response to prolific Japanese filmmaker Yasujiro Ozu's concept of family. It begins where a late Ozu film would have ended. Widow and pharmacy owner Ginko (Sayuri Yoshinaga) gives her only daughter, Koharu (Yu Aoi), away to marriage. Where Ozu's weddings are civilized, gracefully bittersweet rituals, Koharu's banquet descends into drunken mayhem with the unanticipated arrival of her uncle Tetsuro (Tsurubei Shofukutei), who literally turns the tables on Koharu's posh in-laws.
Family black sheep Tetsuro is an alcoholic, ne'er-do-well two-bit actor who gets bailed out by elder sister Ginko all his life. Yamada reveals more of their relationship when he is off-screen, like the painful scene when his lover (Midoriko Kimura) comes from Osaka to beg Ginko for the 1.3 million yen Tetsuro owes her after his disappearance. Set in the summer, the sweltering heat adds to the discomfort of the situation. Only Ginko can peer beyond the woman's coarse accent and cheap, makeup smudged by sweat, to see her devotion and suffering. She pays her not just money, but respect.
Other sides of Tetsuro's nature emerge with news of him languishing with cancer in a charity hospice. Ginko's visit culminates in the re-enactment of the last scene in Ichikawa's "Otouto." Without the original's incestuous subtext, Yamada's version is unabashedly sentimental, intensified by the overdose of warmth created by the hospice's saintly and cooing staff.
Shofukutei's comic bravado is marred by mannerist acting influenced by his background as a traditional "rakugo" comedian. Since Yamada seems content to let him do his schtick, scenes when he is in the spotlight (the wedding, the sickbed histrionics) are lengthy and overdone.
Like "Kabei," "Otouto" is Yamada's love poem to Yoshinaga, his muse in many films. Even when given such an idealized role, one cannot fault her measured acting and composure, given how tempting it is to raise her pitch to keep up with Shofukutei's flamboyant presence. In a less dramatic but far more convincing subplot, Aoi and Ryu Kase are endearingly down-to-earth as childhood friends shyly reaching out to each other after her divorce.
The nature-sensitive cinematography evokes poetic seasonal transitions as if they were attuned to the characters' shifting moods and fortunes. Other technical credits befit Japanese big studio standards.