Pretty as a picture
I stumbled across “Picture Bride” on accident, but now that I have seen it I am surprised that it doesn’t have more of a reputation. This is a beautifully produced, beautifully photographed and beautifully acted independent film, featuring one of the final film appearances of the great actor Mifune Toshiro (Yojimbo).
I first heard of the term “picture bride” in a much more lighthearted movie, Flower Drum Song. I was only vaguely aware of the history, and while I new that Hawaii has a large second, third and fourth generation Japanese population, I never really knew why. The men originally went over for work, slaving away in the sugar cane fields, and when they saved up they sent money back home for a wife to be arranged for them.
“Picture Bride” is essentially the story of two women, Riyo (Youki Kudoh from Mystery Train) and Kana (Tamlyn Tomita from The Karate Kid II). 16-year old Riyo is fresh off the boat, being brought over to Hawaii under false pretenses. Her new husband used a friend’s photo, and is actually older than Riyo’s father. Kana, on the other hand, was pleased with her husband, but many years working the sugar plantation has made them hard, driving a wedge between them. The two bond and become friends, while Riyo learns to live with the old man she is now married to, hoping to save enough money to return to Japan.
I was deeply impressed with how director Kayo Hatta handled the characters. It would have been so simple to take the easy road, to set whites against Asians, and plantation owners against the abused workers. Or to make Riyo’s husband a monster who lied to bring her far across the ocean. But none of these things happen. There is good and bad on all sides of the line, and most people are just trying to make the best out of their various situations.
The cultural aspects are handled beautifully as well, and I really enjoyed the attention to detail such as in the appearance of a yurei, a Japanese ghost. Some of the history may be a little difficult, such as why having a parent die of tuberculosis was such a great shame.
“Picture Bride” is mostly in Japanese with English subtitles, but some English is spoken as well. It is evident that Tamlyn Tomita does not speak Japanese very well, so her lines in that language are limited. Mifune Toshiro’s appearance is small, but wonderful. He plays a traveling benshi, a narrator to the silent samurai films popular at the time.