Sakura Guardian in the North (北の桜守, Yojiro Takita, 2018)

Sakura Guardian in the North posterStill 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)

What a Wonderful Family! (家族はつらいよ, Yoji Yamada, 2016)

what-a-wonderful-familyProlific as he is, veteran director Yoji Yamada (or perhaps his frequent screenwriter in recent years Emiko Hiramatsu) clearly takes pleasure in selecting film titles but What a Wonderful Family! (家族はつらいよ, Kazoku wa Tsurai yo) takes things one step further by referencing Yamada’s own long running film series Otoko wa Tsurai yo (better known as Tora-san). Stepping back into the realms of comedy, Yamada brings a little of that Tora-san warmth with him for a wry look at the contemporary Japanese family with all of its classic and universal aspects both good and bad even as it finds itself undergoing number of social changes.

Once upon a time it was normal for the entire family clan to live together, sons bring their wives to their father’s house, become fathers and then grandfathers themselves passing the property on their eldest when they go. After the war everything changed, the return to prosperity brought about a greater need for mobility as well as increasing desire for privacy and individual freedom which saw the domestic environment shrinking.

The Hiratas still live the old way with “difficult” family patriarch Shuzo (Isao Hashizume) nominally in the lead but spending his retirement in the local bar flirting with the mama-san, Kayo (Jun Fubuki), who is gracious, but extremely skilled in her work which often involves deflecting the attentions of the clientele. His long suffering wife, Tomiko (Kazuko Yoshiyuki), eases her boredom with classes at the local community centre while the wife of eldest son Konosuke (Masahiko Nishimura), Fumie (Yui Natsukawa), has taken taken over the running of the household whilst also taking care of her two sons. The house is also still home to sensitive youngest son Shota (Satoshi Tsumabuki), and a point of refuge for daughter Shigeko (Tomoko Nakajima), during her inevitable fights with mild mannered husband Taizo (Shozo Hayashiya).

When Shuzo can’t really be bothered with his wife’s birthday, he asks her what she’d like as a present – as long as it’s not too expensive, he’s not made of money after all. That’s no problem she says, what I want only costs 450 yen. Shuzo’s confusion gives way to shock as he realises the bit of paper he’s just been handed is a petition for divorce….

Tomiko’s reasoning is sound, the position she’s been occupying for the last forty years is, effectively, a job. Now that the children are grown and another woman has taken over the domestic responsibilities, Tomiko wants to retire and enjoy some well earned freedom at last. The decision sends the entire family into a spiralling existential crisis as they contemplate this unexpected development and what it could mean for their previously ordinary way of life.

It would be nice to think men like Shuzo are a dying breed, so gruff and aggressive that his own daughter-in-law almost hangs up on him thinking he’s an “ore ore” scammer. Having worked hard for his family throughout his life, he feels a tremendous sense of entitlement in playing the king of his own domain. Tomiko, by side all these years putting up with his rudeness, selfishness, and inconsiderate behaviour is thoroughly sick of being taken for granted and unfavourably compared to a bar hostess whose job it is to stroke her husband’s ego.

More challenges to the domestic set up occur when youngest son Shota, still living at home into his 30s, decides to move out and get married. The polar opposite of his brash father, Shota has often been the mediator between different family factions which might well have gone to war and destroyed the household long before now were it not for his calming influence. A marriage would usually be a cause for celebration but Shota has picked exactly the wrong time to introduce his lovely new fiancée, Noriko (Yu Aoi), to the family right in the middle of this extended moment of crisis.

Divorce is still a taboo subject in Japan carrying its own degree of stigma whatever the circumstances which makes Tomiko’s sudden bid for individualistic freedom all the more difficult to understand for her family. This is thrown into sharp relief when Tomiko begins enquiring about Noriko’s family background and discovers she is actually the child of divorced parents only to have a momentary flash of distaste or perhaps mild disapproval before getting over it and trying to make her son’s future wife feel welcome even in this quite tense domestic environment. Disconnected from her own family, being suddenly thrown into the deep end with the boisterous and perhaps too closely involved Hiratas might be a little overwhelming for Hirata-in-waiting Noriko but luckily she takes to it well enough and perhaps finds the liberated frustrations of the large family unit a warm rather than intimidating experience.

It is, indeed, hard being a family. Total honesty is neither possible nor advisable and harmony is largely born of mutual compromise but the essential thing is understanding – both of everyone else’s feelings and of everyone’s unique places within the familial system. Like any good Japanese family drama things have to change so that everything can stay the same, and there’s a poignant moment towards the end where we observe the large number of vacant family homes in the neighbourhood where the elderly owners have either died or moved into residential care facilities while their children and grandchildren founded homes of their own. At the end of the day all anyone wants is a degree recognition as an individual rather than as an embodiment of a concept and if certain people are able to swallow their pride, there might still be hope for the old ways yet.


HK Trailer (English/Traditional Chinese subtitles)

Kabei: Our Mother (母べえ, Yoji Yamada, 2008)

KabeiYoji Yamada’s films have an almost Pavlovian effect in that they send even the most hard hearted of viewers out for tissues even before the title screen has landed. Kabei (母べえ), based on the real life memoirs of script supervisor and frequent Kurosawa collaborator Teruyo Nogami, is a scathing indictment of war, militarism and the madness of nationalist fervour masquerading as a “hahamono”. As such it is engineered to break the hearts of the world, both in its tale of a self sacrificing mother slowly losing everything through no fault of her own but still doing her best for her daughters, and in the crushing inevitably of its ever increasing tragedy.

Summer, 1940. The Nogamis are a happy family who each refer to each other by adding the cute suffix of “bei” to their names. The father, Tobei (Bando Mitsugoro X), is a writer and an intellectual opposed to Japan’s increasing militarism and consequently has found himself in both political and financial difficulties as his writing is continually rejected by the censors. Eventually, the secret police come for him, dragging him away from his home in front of his terrified wife and daughters. After Tobei is thrown into jail for his “thought crimes”, the mother, Kabei (Sayuri Yoshinaga), is left alone with her two young girls Hatsuko and Teruyo (Hatsubei and Terubei in family parlance).

Though devastated, Kabei does not give up and continues to try and visit her husband, urging his release and defending his reputation but all to no avail. Thankfully, she does receive assistance from some of her neighbours who, at this point at least, are sympathetic to her plight and even help her get a teaching job to support herself and the children in the absence of her husband. She also finds an ally in the bumbling former student, Yamazaki (Tadanobu Asano), as well as her husband’s sister Hisako (Rei Dan), and her brother (Tsurube Shofukutei) who joins them for a brief spell but ultimately proves a little too earthy for the two young middle class daughters of a dissident professor.

The time passes and life goes on. The war intensifies as do the attitudes of Kabei’s friends and neighbours though the family continues its individual struggle, sticking to their principles but also keeping their heads down. By the war’s end, Kabei has lost almost everything but managed to survive whilst also ensuring her children are fed and healthy. A voice over from the older Teryuo calmly announces the end of the conflict to us in such a matter of fact way that it’s impossible not wonder what all of this was for? All of this suffering, death and loss and what has it led to – even more suffering, death and loss. A senseless waste of lives young and old, futures ruined and families broken.

Yet for all that, and to return to the hahamono, the Nogami girls turned out OK. Successful lives built in the precarious post-war world with careers, husbands and families. Unlike many of the children in the typical mother centric movie, Hatsuko and Teruyo are perfectly aware of the degree to which their mother suffered on their behalf and they are both humbled and grateful for it. Kabei was careful and she kept moving to protect her children in uncertain times. Seen through the eyes of a child, the wartime years are ones of mounting terror as fanatical nationalism takes hold. Bowler hatted men seem to rule everything from the shadows and former friends and neighbours are primed to denounce each other for such crimes as having the audacity to wear lipstick in such austere times. In one notable scene, the neighbourhood committee begins its meeting by bowing at the Imperial Palace, until someone remembers the paper said the Emperor was in a different palace entirely and they all have to bow the other way just in case.

Though the tale is unabashedly sentimental, Yamada mitigates much of the melodrama with his firmly domestic setting. We see the soldiers massing in the background and feel the inevitable march of history but the sense of tragedies both personal and national, overwhelming as it is, is only background to a testament to the strength of ordinary people in trying times. An intense condemnation of the folly of war and the collective madness that is nationalism, Kabei is the story of three women but it’s also the story of a nation which suffered and survived. Now more than ever, the lessons of the past and the sorrow which can only be voiced on the deathbed are the ones which must be heeded, lest more death and loss and suffering will surely follow.


Original trailer (English subtitles)