A Cut Above – Yoshino’s Barber Shop

C9063-01It is, in a way, somewhat ironic that the review following the last post is that of ‘Yoshino’s Barber Shop’. Ironic, partly because Yasmin Ahmad herself was a big advocate of Japanese creative arts culture in general, and films in particular. It was her that I kept thinking of as I watched this film.

Why? Because in terms of tone, dialogue, action, colour and humour, it reminds me very much of her films. There’s even a light-hearted poke at society, a not-terribly-original tradition vs modern aspect to the proceedings. But of course, this is not her film.

This is a film made by Naoko Ogigami, who graduated from Chiba University’s Image Science programme. We would do well to remember her name.

Actually, I should limit that to ‘me’. I try to watch as many movies as can, but somehow, I tend not to get my grubby mitts on them a lot of the time. As it so happens, she has gone on to bigger things since ‘Yoshino’ (this feature debut was made back in 2004), and I intend to watch them if possible.

DBKL's inspection team did not have a lot of power.
DBKL's inspection team did not have a lot of power.

But that’s jumping a little too far ahead. For now, let’s concentrate on this little gem of a film. ‘Yoshino’ is one of those films that is a little deceptive. It is indeed about a barbershop, but through that there is more than meets the eye. The story is set in Kaminoe, a place that is opened up on the film in a very musical way. It is a place that is very heavy on traditions, and one of the major ones is that every male in town must have the same bowl haircut. The place to get this haircut is Yoshino’s Barber Shop, run by Yoshiko (Masako Motai), a woman one associates with the strict school headmasters of yesteryears.

However, the main focus here, I feel, is very much on her two sons, Keita (Ryo Yoneda) and Yaji (Shoto Okawa), and their friends. Predictably, they all have the same haircut. Less predictably, for so strong a tradition, its origins were vague. One of the elderly customers, Grandpa Mikawa (Senri Sakurai), claims that it was done to ward of a demon. As such, it is a small price to pay for the constant ‘boringness’ of their hairstyle. “Our boys are so boring, everyone has the same hairstyle,” quipped one of their female classmates in school.

TIME's editorial on Obama was interesting.
TIME's editorial on Obama was interesting.

So you can imagine the commotion when a new kid transferred to the school. He’s cool, he’s from Tokyo, his name is Yosuke (Hoshi Ishida). More importantly, he has a different hair. Centre-parted hair. Orange hair. With blonde highlights. All hell practically breaks loose. The girls adore him. His teachers doesn’t like him, but that’s because he refused to cut his hair, which made him a rebel…which made the girls adore him even more. Which made him the boys’ public enemy number 1…almost. Since their teacher forced them to spend time with him and show him around, they did indeed spend more time with him. Over time, their alliance grew to the point that the boys banded together to resist Yosuke getting his hair cut by Yoshiko.

The above description was slightly longer than usual, and perhaps a simpler one, as you may well find on the net, would have sufficed. Nevertheless, I feel that that would have been a slight injustice to the film, for several reasons. One, a lot of the synopses that I did come across online were accurate, but a little too brief for my liking. Two, this film owes a lot of its success to the characterisation of the…err, characters. You know and can identify almost immediately who is who. If you’re lucky, you might even be able to discern a few such characters from your own life, as I did. Though a lot of them started out almost in a generic manner, by the end of the film, each one of them has a clear and unique voice. Even the local crazy guy has a story of his own, and in one scene with Yoshiko, was the source of great fun and laughter in the cinema.

'Wet behind the ear' is not just a figurative term, as Yoshiko found out.
'Wet behind the ear' is not just a figurative term, as Yoshiko found out.

Beyond that, however…in terms of plot, there’s not really all that much to be said about the film. It’s a nice little film because it is almost literally a nice little film. The story progresses slowly, but at the same time, time is not wasted. Each scene adds a little something. Yosuke’s struggle to remain an independent mind, an island upon himself, was tested almost right from the very beginning. Pressure came from all sides, from the school, the teachers, Yoshiko herself, and even the boys for a short while. There was even a brilliant speech by him. As his teacher prodded him to make the cut, Yosuke, feeling understandably annoyed, hit back: “Forcing everyone to have the same haircut is a violation of human rights.” Enamoured by his boldness, however, it proved to be a trial-by-fire that visibly strengthened their bond even more.

What I love the most about the film, however, is how it is incredibly relevant. The dilemma of tradition vs modernism is not a new one, but you feel that it is sugarcoated in an incredibly nice and fresh way here. You can take it and apply it not only to Japan, but to Korea, Malaysia, religion, race…well, almost anything, really. From pointing out the fallacy of the local demon legend, to ‘liberalising’ the rest of the boys by introducing them to pornography, the character of Yosuke is a force of change. Wonderful it is, then, to see him pitted against the brilliant Masako Motai. She took what could have been a stereotyped character, but imbued it with much humanity that makes Yoshiko one-of-a-kind. You don’t really like her at first (strict schoolmaster, remember), but there are little moments, little details that makes her…cool! I double dare you not to say “whoa” when she uses her ‘supernatural powers’ during her exercise routine. 🙂 It was in these moments that I thought of Kak Yasmin, for the style is not far off from her own films.

Make no mistake about it, this film is a nice little gem that you won’t regret watching. I say that about a lot of films, but always with the disclaimer of the subjective; what I like may not be what you like. Here, I don’t need that disclaimer.

If all else fails…the kids are so cute! 🙂

After a bit of research, Fikri thinks that Image Science sounds like a cool university major. 🙂

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3 thoughts on “A Cut Above – Yoshino’s Barber Shop

  1. Saw the film back in 2003 or 04,at the time I was living in Japan.I watched it on the plane,loved it.A real masterpiece!The review ia very correct,I believe.The interaction of values it describes are universal and go through the ages of humanity.Far superior to any “hollywood bad taste” production.

  2. I don’t particularly mind Hollywood productions myself. However, though I adopt a scatter gun approach when it comes to the films I watch, I’ve always though that Japanese films have something special about them. This movie is no different. 🙂

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