In 1918, the orphaned teenager Riyo leaves Japan for Hawaii and an arranged marriage. She knows her new husband Matsuji only from a letter, in which he calls himself a sugar-cane farmer and addresses a romantic haiku to her, and from his photograph--the grinning, good-looking face of a 20-year-old. When Riyo arrives in Honolulu, the man waiting for her is 43, and a farmer only in the sense that he's a laborer in the cane fields, breaking his back for 65 cents a day. She's appalled, and he's not entirely pleased with her, a frail city girl unfit for farm work.
Riyo takes one look at this man more than twice her age, his shabby little shack and his life of crushing work, and can quite understandably think of nothing but rushing home to Yokohama. But this can only be accomplished, if at all, by saving her meager pay for years. To augment her savings, also for something to do, she works extra hours as a laundress with another picture bride, the tougher and more experienced Kana (Tamlyn Tomita). The two become close friends.
What makes Picture Bride a humane and absorbing work is that the director, Kayo Hatta, makes us feel a nearly equal degree of sympathy for Matsuji (Akira Takayama) as we do for Riyo (Youki Kudoh). We're drawn into Riyo's isolation and fear, but it also may occur to us that Matsuji doesn't look too bad for a 43-year-old--he's tanned and rugged, with not a gray hair on his head. And though he makes crude, clumsy advances at Riyo on their wedding night, he backs off when he's rejected.
In modern mores, such behavior is, of course, the minimum standard for decency. But Hatta lets Picture Bride take place in its own era, so convincingly that we give the people onscreen points for going above and beyond the call of the mores of their own period.
Hatta, a former documentarian, manages to squeeze a great deal of sociological and historical detail into this quiet film. For all its seeming simplicity, Picture Bride keeps pulling back for more and more cultural perspective. There's even a scene in which the villainous Portuguese crew boss of the Asians is dressed down by his superior--a Scot--and bitterly calls him a "haole," and suddenly we realize the crew boss feels closer to the Asians than to the Anglo whites.
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The cores of the film, however, are the relationships between Riyo and Matsuji and Riyo and Kana. The three leads perform to perfection. There isn't the slightest touch of romanticism to Kudoh's interpretation of Riyo; she's a lovely but otherwise ordinary kid who finds the strength to grow up fast because she has to. Tomita, no less beautiful, spits out her lines of Hawaiian-English pidgin so fiercely that any sentimentality is cut away from Kana. Takayama's Matsuji is less limited than he initially seems; he has patience and tenderness that neither we nor Riyo can see at first.
Overall, Picture Bride is a triumphant small-scale epic. There's a misstep or two in the writing, especially of the female-bonding scenes; at times we feel our responses being cued a little too insistently. And the time frame is poorly established. At one point, the frustrated Matsuji is advised that Riyo is a modern girl and needs to be wooed romantically, la Rudolf Valentino. Valentino's first big success came in 1921, so this would indicate that Matsuji has endured three years of unconsummated marriage before he receives this advice.
Also, at times, the naturalism feels a bit relentless, in spite of the exotic paradisaical setting. A very brief cameo by the great Toshiro Mifune as a gallant traveling showman adds a touch of colorful panache of which we wouldn't mind more.
Perhaps Hatta is right not to give it to us, though. The film is a chronicle of the dignity of its characters and the hardship of their lives, to their dreams deferred and to the harshly strategic realism of their plans to recoup them. When, for instance, the orders of the Portuguese taskmaster lead to tragedy in the cane fields, the Asians consider striking to get him fired, then decide to do it later, at harvest time, when the owners will be over a barrel. Near the end, we hear them singing in Japanese, right under the crew boss's nose, of his downfall to come, yet they keep tending the cane.