A Film a Week - The Last Goze

 previously published on Asian Movie Pulse

“Goze” is a term that stands for a woman, usually, but not necessarily blind, who works as a travelling musician and singer. The tradition dates at least back to the Edo period, and it was present in the rural areas from Kyushu island in the south to Yamagata and Fukushima prefectures in the north. It was active well into the second half of the 20th century when the last professional goze Haru Kobayashi retired from her work in 1978. “The Last Goze”, directed by Masaharu Takizawa, is a biopic about her, and too bad it is not a good movie.

The movie follows her from her birth, through her childhood and goze training and apprenticeships with different mentors, in the early adulthood and the beginning of her career as an independent artist, guild member and group leader. It starts with a warning printed on the screen, stating that the harsh language and actions are merely the reflection of the state of things back in the day, and it actually comes pretty handy.

Haru was born blind in the year of 1900, which was just the first tragedy in her life. She lost her father early on and she was raised by her grandparents. Back then, visual impairment was a severe limitation even to the women born in higher classes, so becoming a goze was pretty much her only option to make a living. In order to do so, she had to endure a strict training both at home, where her mother Tome (Hiroko Nakajima) undertook the role of an “ogre mother”, forcing little Haru (Non Kawakita) to learn sewing, to carry heavy burden and to walk almost barefoot in the cold, and on tour with her abusive first mentor, Madam Fuji (Shin Togashi). The things got a bit easier later on as she grew up (Miyu Yoshimoto takes up the role of Haru in her late teens and early adulthood) was picked up by the second mentor, Madam Sawa (Ayako Kobayashi), but the life of a goze is never an easy one, since a travelling musician has to endure a lot of hardships on the road, and also by the hands of the competition.

Largely all the problems in the film come from the script written by Takizawa with the help by Arei Kato and Isao Shiina. Firstly, the fact that it focuses only on Haru’s early age is a grave mistake, making it too reliant on the well-known clichés about the Japanese traditions and the life in rural parts of the before the WWII and before the modernization. In fact, Haru had an interesting life full of hardships also in her adulthood and old age (she lived to the age of 105, dying in the year of 2005, achieving the status of the national treasure before that), but the dying out of the tradition, which should be a central topic in the film about the last goze, is never addressed.

On top of that, their script is marred with the rigid dialogues, which results in rigid, declamatory and theatrical line delivery by the cast, and the over-abundant use of the narrator makes it feel like a literary adaptation, when it is, in fact, based on the semi-factual, semi-legendary, but actually well-known and publicized “wikipedian” bits and pieces from Haru’s life. Not everything that went in the acting department could be attributed to the script, some of it is the director’s fault. Takazawa does his best to mask the script’s faults by using the wider shots as much as possible, but the troubles become painfully visible in close-ups: being blind is not the same as having the eyes closed, which is the thing what the cast members playing the blind characters do most of the time.

Certainly, “The Last Goze” was seen as an important project aimed at preserving a piece of now-lost tradition. The appearance of the famous actors like Hiroyuki Watanabe, Ken Tanaka and others in bit roles signals it loudly. Some saving grace could be found in detailed production and costume design, as well as the use of the period-appropriate props, and generally in technical components like cinematography handled by Hideo Sasaki and Moritada Iju that shines especially in the open spaces, and the editing by Satoru Shiraishi that tries to establish some sense of rhythm in something very linear and flat-lined, but when the basis is crooked, there is not much to be done. Too bad.

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