Saturday, July 14, 2012

お盆のための日本映画 - Two Films for Obon

Summer is here and with it comes Obon. For those not familiar with Japanese Culture, Obon is a Buddhist custom for families to gather and pay honor to one's ancestors and the recently deceased at family altars and temples. As some of you may have read our earlier posts on American Mishima, we too have lost both family and dear friends making this year's Obon more significant on a very personal level. Two years ago on American Mishima, we featured Three Films for Obon. This year which has had it's share of grief to go around we offer you the reader of this blog what we had earlier attempted to do. As before we have selected two films that reflect the spirit of this season. We hope you enjoy.

Our first offering is the 1998 film Afterlife known by the Japanese title ワンダフルライフ Wandafuru Raifu  or Wonderful Life directed by Hirokazu Koreeda. This is a peculiar low budget film that starts slow and at times looks more like a film students final project than a serious feature film. But before you tune out the story line hooks you in and draws you in. Afterlife is a film in where the plot starts with the recently deceased being sent to some way-station of sorts filmed in some abandoned Tokyo school. Once the deceased arrives they are assigned a case worker who will work with them for the following week. During this week, the deceased are to select one memory that will be made into a short film (made entirely by the caseworkers who also happened to be skilled at movie making) reliving that moment before they can take of their life into the afterlife. Once their film has been screened the deceased disappear into the next existence. Failing to select a memory, the deceased finds them self to remain at the way-station to work as a case worker.  All seems routine and pretty mundane for case worker Takashi played by Arata until he is assigned the case of an old man who led one of the dullest lives he had ever witnessed. From day to day the old man went to his office job, said little then returned home to his wife and would go to a park and sit to watch the leaves in silence. Pretty dull so far? Wait! Before the man disappeared he left a note for Takashi revealing both his content for his life and his love for his wife who had earlier passed on.

 What happens next is Takashi learns that the old man's wife had a fiancee who was killed during World War II who she would spend her time with him at that very same park bench. Something happens that makes Takashi want to find out who his wife was and see her last memory. What he discovers will not only shock you but changes the whole course of the movie. This movie really makes you think if you could only have one memory of this life time what memory would you choose? Think about it. The concept alone is thought provoking. I absolutely loved the storyline behind this picture. Creative and utterly ingenious and most original! But don't take my word for it. See for yourself!

Our Second film comes from Japan's most legendary filmmaker of all time Akira Kurosawa in his final film the 1993 Madadayo.

 まあだだよ - Madadayo the name comes from a children's game where the children call out Mada kai (are you ready yet?) and the reply is Madadayo - Not ready yet! So what does this have to do with Obon? Everything! Life as in death is full of reflection and what better film to screen than a film that best covers this ideal of life reflection and the summary of one's life. This is a film that is based on the real life Japanese academic and author, Hyakken Uchida (1889–1971). The film starts out in the opening of World War II where Uchida Sensei played by Tatsuo Matsumura announces to his high school students of the all male classroom he has been teaching German language that he was to retire. Uchida Sensei is beloved by all of his students who check on him and his wife as the war progresses. Uchida Sensei's house is completely destroyed during the American Bombings which included the destruction of his beloved study & library and is forced to live with his wife in a small outhouse like shack for shelter. 

Shortly after Japan's defeat, Uchida Sensei's former students pool their resources together and rebuild his house. It is during the first year of the American Occupation of Japan that his former students decide to start a tradition of throwing their teacher a birthday party. During this first party you only see grown men mostly in their twenties and early thirties in a fraternal like atmosphere that draws the attention of the American Occupiers. Seeing that these men were throwing a harmless Sapporo filled birthday party for an old man, the Americans leave them be. 
The highlight of this first party was that a big glass of beer would be presented to Uchida Sensei where he is cheered on to drink the whole glass in one large gulp to which the retired professor succeeds in doing.
As the years go on the parties grow larger and start to include the wives of all of Uchida Sensei's former students. Soon they bring their children and as time grows on their children grow up to marry and have children of their own who are all brought to Uchida Sensei's birthday parties. Near the film's end there now hundreds of former students and their families that include grandchildren of the first students. Such love and grattitude for one's old Sensei. Isn't that what Obon is all about? Grattitude indeed! It's not lost on us Hakujin. All this makes Uchida Sensei exhausted in his old age reflecting back on the wonderful life he had lived and the children's game he once played called Madadayo. It's a beautiful film full of reflection and appreciation for the mastery of Akira Kurosawa in what some could say was his final gift to the world. Madadayo. 
I wish there was a better trailer for Madadayo available but if you can get the gist of this small clip you will want to see this film and enjoy it with your family during Obon. We wish all our departed friends and family the very best and for them to know we are thinking of them and remember them with love and appreciation always.

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