Still a major marquee star and one of the few golden age actresses regularly playing leading roles in box office hits, Sayuri Yoshinaga has for one reason or another become somewhat synonymous with a brand of quietly patriotic tales of wartime endurance and maternal suffering. Sakura Guardian in the North (北の桜守, Kita no Sakuramori), apparently the conclusion of a loose trilogy of “Northern” films which began with Year One in the North in 2005 and led on to Junji Sakamoto’s A Chorus of Angels in 2012, sees her once again engage with post-war trauma as a mother eventually driven out of her mind by the inability to come to terms with the weight of tragedy.
The tale begins on Sakhalin in spring 1945. Despite the intense cold of the frozen North, Tetsu (Sayuri Yoshinaga) – mother to two young sons, Seitaro and Shujiro, has carefully nurtured cherry trees grown from seeds brought from the mainland ensuring that they blossom even here. The family’s happiness will however be short lived. Dad Tokujiro (Hiroshi Abe) is sent off to the war while Tetsu and the children are eventually forced to evacuate to escape the Russian invasion, planning to wait for Tokujiro in Abashiri on the north coast of Hokkaido.
Flashing forward to 1971, we find ourselves in Tokyo with Shujiro (Masato Sakai), now a grown man married to the Japanese-American daughter of an LA hot dog entrepreneur, Mari (Ryoko Shinohara). Having made something of himself in the New World, Shujiro has returned to Japan to open the first branch of his father-in-law’s convenience stores. His plans are disrupted when he gets an unexpected call from Abashiri about his mother, whom he hasn’t seen since she told him to leave her behind and seek his fortune 15 years previously. The public housing shanty town where Tetsu ran her restaurant is being torn down but she’s showing no signs of leaving, and not only that, she’s begun to act strangely.
This Shujiro finds out for himself by visiting her and witnessing Tetsu talk to her own reflection as if it were a long lost friend. His sudden decision to bring his mother back with him to Tokyo without talking to his wife, who has never even met her mother-in-law, places a strain on his marriage on top of the already heavy burden of the store but Shujiro is determined to make it work. Tetsu, however, finds its hard to adjust. Used to living in small country towns where everyone knows everyone, she doesn’t realise you can’t just walk off from stores shouting “put it on my tab”, and annoys the neighbours by starting a smoky fire outside trying to cook rice the old fashioned way. With Shujiro busy with work, the burden falls disproportionately on the patient but exasperated Mari who is forced to apologise when Tetsu walks off in someone else’s shoes after trying on city-style outfits at a department store, and looks on in horror as her new mother-in-law starts an intense conversation with a cherry blossom tree.
Tetsu’s down home charm does, however, begin to give Shujiro some business inspiration as he ponders why his top American hotdogs aren’t selling now the novelty’s worn off. As his staff tell him, maybe they need to think a little more “Japanese” – more fresh veggies and innovative toppings, less ketchup and mustard. Shujiro has another idea – the original Japanese “convenience” food, onigiri, made with rice cooked in a pot and roughly shaped by a loving mother’s hands.
Rice, however, despite its ubiquity in the comparatively comfortable world of 1971 brings with it traumatic memories. Starving after the war, white rice was something Shujiro and Tetsu could only dream of, getting their first taste of it in many moons only when cooked to place on a funeral altar. Meanwhile, rice was also the only reason they survived after running into a slightly dodgy young man who gave them “jobs” helping him to smuggle it for sale on the black market. Shinji (Koichi Sato) helped them in other ways too, eventually putting up the money for Tetsu’s homely eatery, and would have married her if she were not on the one hand loyal to the memory of her absent husband, and so troubled by survivor’s guilt as to believe that she is “a person who does not deserve happiness”.
To punish herself for perceived failures, Tetsu has lived a life of austerity – working hard in the restaurant, dressing in simple ragged clothes, and eating only enough not to starve. She forced Shujiro away to make something of himself, but never spent any of the money he sent home to her nor answered any of his letters. Shujiro, by contrast, has swung the opposite way – determined to live a life of luxury and becoming unforgiving with it. Mari sees an ugly side to him when he’s visited by one of the boys who used to bully him (Ken Yasuda) for being a refugee and a black-marketeer back in Abashiri now fallen on hard times. Superficially polite, Shujiro humiliates him with undignified zeal while wilfully planning to exploit his workforce, quickly silencing an employee who tries to point out violations to the labour code.
Yet like Tetsu, who is somewhat unstuck in time, he begins to find a softer side of himself as the pair of them journey back into the past and revisit the sites of their shared traumas. Yojiro Takita stages Tetsu’s internal confusion somewhat incongruously as an avant-garde stage play offering occasional background info on the exodus from Sakhalin, an experience Shujiro is seemingly shut out from as he tries to reconnect with his mother only to lose her again but rediscovering a better version of himself before he was hardened by the burden of his memories and the hardships of the post-war era. Tetsu keeps the cherry blossoms in bloom in the North, cultivating beauty as a means to connect with her loss, and eventually finding a kind of resolution in the returned ghosts of her past given life once again by the strength of her devotion.
Singapore trailer (English / Simplified Chinese subtitles)