Friday, July 9, 2010

映画お盆の - Three Films for Obon

The Japanese festival of Obon is upon us! It is a celebration of the annual return of our ancestral spirits marking our interdependence with them. It is a time of deep reflection and more so for those who have recently lost family or friends. There was a time I used to look forward to Halloween but since adopting Buddhist and Shinto practice and traditions I have found Obon to mean much more. It occurred to me when I started going to the Koyasan Betsuin in Little Tokyo that the dead had started to visit me every July in ever so frequent occurrences. In fact, frequent enough to all but eclipse the one or two visits during the Celtic New Year where there I can expect to hear from an old friend or two for a day or so. But in contrast Obon I can expect to see my grandfather, my old roommate Deirdre, older friends, and my most recently departed grandmother Sophie to check in on me in both my dreams and sometimes in some unexpected ways to let me know they are still with me. Ever watchful and ever in my heart their memories mirror my own.

So every year at Obon there are Buddhist memorial services and festivals both in the Nihon Machi’s in America and throughout Japan. I will be going to a few of them myself to pay respects to those who have passed on. So in reflection, I have decided to write about three films that individually deal with grief and the celebration of life from three different angles. May you find them as entertaining as they are heartfelt stories that reflect life and loss in the deep and subtlety that only Japanese Culture can express to share with all.

The first film is the German film Kirschbluten aka Cherry Blossoms - Hanami. It is a moving drama by director Dorris Dorrie made in 2008. The story is of an German elderly couple in Bavaria played by Elmar Wepper and Hannalore Elsner. Elsner plays Trudi who learns that her husband Rudi has come down with a terminal illness to which she chooses not to tell Rudi the gravity of his prognosis. Instead she talks her accountant husband to go on a spontaneous trip at the suggestion of Rudi’s physician. So they take a trip to Berlin to see their two grown up children and grandchildren in Berlin but they are so consumed with their own lives there is no time for Trudi & Rudi. Trudi’s third child is the grown up Karl who also works as an accountant in Tokyo Japan. It was her wish to see Mount Fuji but settles to see the Baltic Sea with Rudi instead of remaining in Berlin to be neglected by their family. Once there at a Baltic Sea Resort Rudi awakes to find his beloved Trudi had passed on. In his grief Rudi is consoled by his daughter’s girlfriend who was aware of Trudi’s love of Japanese Butoh Dance. And in going through her things he discovers she had sacrificed her life long desire to see Japan and more specifically Mount Fuji to live for her husband Rudi and their three children. In death Rudi realizes his wife had wished to live another life in Japan which makes him see his wife in a whole different light he had never known.

The poor grief stricken widower Rudi becomes consumed with guilt and loss and decides to go to Japan to fulfill his wife’s desire to see Mount Fuji. So in doing so he packs her Kimono and her clothes in an effort to bring her along. Once in Tokyo he is the care of his accountant son Karl who asks the question: “Why have you never visited me in Tokyo?” Rudi can only answer: “Because we always thought we would have more time.” Karl proceeds to deal with his own grief by being a workaholic and utterly neglecting his elderly father who can not speak Japanese. The isolation and neglect leads Rudi to go out on his own and explore Tokyo while engaging in some eccentric grief inspired behavior. During his visit to the Hanami he comes across a homeless teenage Butoh dancer named Yu played by Aya Irizuki who strikes up a strange and unlikely friendship. No this is not Lost in Translation. Yu’s dance is a shadow dance from which she interacts with her recently departed mother. In grief the two become art and in a climatic gesture, the two embark on a journey to see Mount Fuji in hopes of living his wife’s lifelong desire. This is a two hour film which starts off slow but becomes an engrossing drama. It won several awards and inspired many people in Germany to make check up calls on their parents. Enjoy Kudasai

My next film is the 2003 Australian film Japanese Story directed by Sue Brooks. Toni Collette plays Sandy Edwards who is a director for a software company in Perth, Australia. Her business partner arranges for her to act as a tour guide for a Japanese businessman Tachibana Hiromitsu played by Gotaro Tsunamashima – task she is least enthusiastic about. To add to her sense of indignity, Hiromitsu expects her to open doors and carry his luggage which adds to her level of resentment to her partners who expects her to do her best in order to sell their company’s software. As expected, Sandy and Hiromitsu do not get along. He winds up talking her into driving into the Australian Outback where they end up getting their vehicle stuck in the mud. The two become stranded and are forced to spend the night in the desert together. The following day, Hiromitsu realizes that his arrogance and disregard for Sandy's consideration had placed the two in danger which motivates him to free the vehicle and make the situation right which leads to Sandy becoming his friends.

 Now that they can stand to speak to one another, they begin to start a friendship which leads to a sexual relationship. It is only afterwards that Hiromitsu reveals he has a wife and children living in Japan. The two go swimming then unexpectedly tragedy strikes. Hiromitsu dived into a shallow end of a watering hole and comes up dead. The tragedy sends Sandy into a tailspin as she tries to deal with her sudden circumstances. Not only will she have to explain what happened to her business partner, she will have to deal with Hiromitsu’s grieving wife. Talk about reality check in the harshest terms! There are some expressions that need no translations. I didn’t think I was going to like this film but then before you know it you get hooked and feel the sense of loss along with the characters. It is possible you may too.

My final film for Obon is the 2008 film by Yojiro Takita "Departures." Unlike my first two films this does not share the moving song titled Chinsagu no Hana. This Japanese production stars Masahiro Motoki who plays Daigo Kobayashi. A cellist in the Tokyo Opera. Upon hearing the the news of the orchestra’s disillusion, Kobayashi decides to sell his cello and move back to his home town to which his wife passively accepts. Once back in his hometown of Sakata, Yamagata he finds an ad for an NK Agency for assisting departures. Kobayashi naturally assumes this is a job at a travel agency but it turns out he has just been hired on the spot for a job where he must ceremoniously prepare the dead in front of mourners for burial. The money is good but the feared wrath and embarrassment from his wife is not. So after being advanced money from his new job he tries to explain his new position to his wife without detail.
This is a fascinating film which shows you the ins and outs of the Japanese funeral industry. The methods of what they call nokan (encoffinment) are indeed a foreign concept here in America but performed with such dignity before the family. Kobayashi must clean, dress, and apply makeup all before the mourning family. He inevitably becomes really good at his profession but just when you think it’s safe his wife Mika played by Ryoko Hirosue finds the training video and demands he quits immediately. But when his estranged father passes away, new meaning to his work becomes evident to both Kobayashi and Mika. It is a deeply fascinating movie and one that leaves you in awe of the dignified customs of Japan. Enjoy kudasai!

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