The Austin Chronicle

Picture Bride

Directed by Kayo Hatta. Starring Youki Kudoh, Akira Takayama, Tamlyn Tomita, Cary-Hiroyuki Tagawa.

REVIEWED By Alison Macor, Fri., Aug. 11, 1995

A film about history, nostalgia, and matchmaking, Picture Bride deservedly won this year's Audience Award at the Sundance Film Festival. Director/co-screenwriter Hatta drew on her grandmother's experiences as a mail-order bride from Japan to write -- with her sister Mari -- a story about Riyo (Kudoh), a 16-year-old Japanese orphan married off to Matsuji (Takayama), a Japanese immigrant living and working as a sugarcane laborer in Hawaii. Both Riyo and Matsuji have seen photographs of each other, a practice that became more commonplace in the early 1900s as Japanese matchmakers took advantage of still photography. Hence the film's title Picture Bride, a reference to the large number of women sent from Japan to Hawaii between 1907 and 1924 (when American anti-Japanese sentiment forced the Japanese government to stop issuing passports to these women) as mail-order brides for Japanese workers in Hawaii. “Far away, you can leave your past behind,” Riyo's aunt tells her as she prepares to leave to meet her betrothed. While this sentiment rings true at times for Riyo as she embarks on her new life in Hawaii, she also discovers the importance of retaining ties to a past and a culture that she never can replace. Faced with the unsettling prospect of a husband much older than his picture had let on, Riyo befriends Kana (Tomita), another picture bride struggling with her own misgivings and fears about living in Hawaii. Director Hatta's first feature skillfully blends humor with the day-to-day drama of living in a land that is not one's own. Kudoh (Mystery Train), one of the most popular actresses in Japan today, never falters in her spirited presentation of Riyo's innocence and strength. Her performance, coupled with the striking cinematography of Claudio Rocha, whose scenes of the Hawaiian sugarcane fields are reminiscent of the haunting blue-black forest scenes filmed by Stuart Dryburgh for The Piano, make Picture Bride's seemingly “small” story of daily life a visual treat. The Hatta sisters' screenplay celebrates both the mundane details of Riyo's new life and the more subtle transformations in her relationship with husband Matsuji. The film's narrative skillfully suggests even a few unexplored plot developments that add a bit of mystery to the story. Dedicating Picture Bride to “all the women who made the journey,” director Hatta explores effectively the few choices that women of this time and these circumstances made in order to improve their lives and preserve their culture. Although this is a small film in that it profiles an individual's drama rather than the human condition, Picture Bride does so with tremendous warmth and respect for its characters.

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