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Tuesday, Oct. 3, 2000


Struggling with ties that bind

The graying of Japan is one of those editorial staples that this boomer is sick of hearing about and convinced the conventional wisdom is wrong about. A greater threat to the social fabric than the descent of millions of Me Generation types into debility and senility, while their children struggle to supply them with nurses, hospices and cemetery plots, is the development of replacement parts and Fountain of Youth drugs to keep us going indefinitely.

Think of Keisuke Kuwata still shaking it in 2040. Think of the current LDP gerontocracy extended into infinity, with prime ministers in their 80s and finance ministers in their 90s drowsing through the 10,000th cabinet meeting on the sad state of the Japanese economy. Think of today's insane holiday traffic jams becoming a daily event, with endless lines of pensioners on permanent holiday slowing for every highway exit so they can squint at the signs through their trifocals.

Our children may be tempted to ship the lot of us off to the mid-century equivalent of Obasuteyama, that semi-mythical mountain where Japanese old folks once went to die and leave their bones to be conveniently picked by the ever-present crows.

But, as Tazuko Makitsubo's wise, if painfully earnest, film "Roshin" (literally "Aged Parents") makes clear, it won't be that easy. Even in 21st-century Japan, whose values are formed more by the twin gods of materialism and careerism than traditional respect-thy-elders Confucianism, the human bonds between generations remain. Sometimes, Makitsubo tells us, they chafe or choke, but they are hard to break, even when said generations are not even legally bound.

This veteran director of social-problem films ("Watashi ga Suki," "Chikyukko Inochi no Ai no Message") has earned this insight the hard way. Now in her seventh decade, she is disabled by rheumatism and must rely on the help of her mother, who is herself afflicted with Alzheimer's disease. Makitsubo directed the film from a wheelchair -- and included a scene of a wheelchair-bound middle-aged man being pushed about by his aged mother.

"Roshin," however, is based on two autobiographical novels by Yasuko Kadono, one of which was made into an NHK drama series. Though addressing the well-worn theme of middle-aged women caring for aged relatives, the film's take on it is refreshingly unconventional. Instead of a traditionally virtuous, if firmly squelched, okusan sacrificing years of her life on the altar of family obligations, the heroine, Seiko (Hisako Manda), is an educated, modern woman with a stubborn streak and a wry sense of humor.

But when her mother-in-law falls ill and her husband (Takaaki Enoki) asks Seiko to take care of her, she can't easily refuse, even though her own father is dying of cancer in a hospital. She leaves her home in Tokyo and journeys to her in-laws' big Japanese-style house in rural Nara Prefecture. Her mother-in-law soon passes on, but Seiko and her husband now have another problem to deal with -- the old man (Keiju Kobayashi) rattling around inside that house.

They can't leave him alone: Though healthy save for a bad knee, he can barely boil a pot of water. They also can't persuade him to move out: He is more than a match for Seiko in stubbornness. So, with a feeling of reluctance and dread, Seiko agrees to stay in the house with her two children, while her husband continues to work in Tokyo. A temporary arrangement, she assumes -- wrongly.

Ojii-san is a typical Japanese man of his generation, who regards himself as lord of the manor and his daughter-in-law as his maid, nurse and general factotum, who will uncomplainingly feed, clothe and clean up after him. But Seiko balks at the old man's whims and caprices, such as conveniently forgetting to flush the toilet or, in one particularly memorable episode, carelessly depositing a large, fragrant gift in the o-furo for her to fish out.

Soon these two are engaged in a war of the wills, one that Seiko, with a patience and determination that would do a cat trainer proud, ends up winning. In the process, she and Ojii-san achieve a mutual understanding and even become friends.

After seven years of this arrangement, during which her children have grown up and her marriage has broken down, she has had enough. She leaves Nara, divorces her husband ("What have I done?" he asks plaintively as she hands him the divorce papers. "You haven't done anything -- except run away," she answers), finds her own apartment and begins a new career -- as a writer of books about caring for the elderly. A new life beckons, when Ojii-san turns up at her door.

This sounds like a cue for comedy of "The Man Who Came to Dinner" variety, but though "Roshin" has a comic undercurrent (which surfaces in the character of Ojii-san's platitude-spouting, stupendously obtuse sister, played by Machiko Ogasawara), it is more of a TV home drama, complete with plenty of tube-friendly close-ups (which give us plenty of opportunities to count the silver caps in Ms. Ogasawara's extraordinarily large teeth). Also, it repeats its essential message -- Japan urgently needs to reform its traditional ways of caring for the elderly -- until we know what the characters are going to say before they say it.

Makitsubo is not out to make entertainment so much as a rousing call to arms for women who feel trapped in a family system that demands their labor, but ignores their needs and individuality. May a million Seikos bloom.

"Roshin" opens Oct. 14 at Iwanami Hall in Jimbocho.

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