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Wednesday, March 27, 2002

A mature take on one of life's tragedies


Rating: * * *
Director: Hisako Matsui
Running time: 111 minutes
Language: Japanese
Now showing

Most Japanese movies are made for people still young enough to think adulthood is for someone else. Raising kids? Paying a mortgage? Caring for elders? Later, thank you. Me? I've been there and done that, which sometimes makes me impatient with films whose idea of a crisis is post-adolescent angst. I also wonder about directors who are pushing 40 and still making campy trash for boy-men (of whatever age). Sure, it's fun, but if you never grow up, at some point you become the joke, guys. Life is funny that way.

News photo
Kazuko Yoshiyuki and Mikiko Harada in "Oriume"

Then there are the Japanese filmmakers, all on the far side of 50, who are impeccably mature. Their films are worthy treatments of pressing social issues -- the graying of Japanese society is a big one now -- and hit all the expected emotional buttons with a lugubrious implacability. The sole object, as with the "reunion" or "triumph over adversity" shows on Japanese television, is to make everyone, both on camera and in the audience, weep buckets. The characters play to type, as defined by decades of NHK morning dramas, while the stories are as predictable as the blooming of the cherry blossoms. Cancer is inevitably terminal, while memory loss in any character over 60 inevitably means Alzheimer's. The hospitals in these films might as well have Dante's "abandon all hope, ye who enter" inscribed above the in-patient desk.

Hisako Matsui's "Oriume (Broken Plum Branch)" would seem to be in this less-than-promising line. The setting is the Nagoya suburb of Toyoake -- the Japanese equivalent of Columbus, Ohio -- and the heroine is a woman married to a workaholic salaryman, raising two kids and trying to cope with her mother-in-law, who is suffering from, as you might guess, early-stage Alzheimer's. In other words, break out the hankies.

But not so quickly. Matsui, whose 1997 film "Yukie" was also about the effects of Alzheimer's (though on a Japanese woman living in Louisiana and married to an American), is out to upset stereotypes in "Oriume," including the one that Japanese films about catastrophic illnesses are downer melodramas. It could be argued that she goes too far in the other direction, painting an overly positive picture of an illness with no miracle cures or lucky survivors.

She knows whereof she speaks, however, having spent five years making "Yukie" and another year and a half writing the script for "Oriume," based on "Wasuretemo Shiawase," Motoko Kosuge's book about her Alzheimer's-afflicted mother. Her film, particularly its third act, has the feeling of solid reportage, not wishful thinking. Though there may be no cures, there are, Matsui suggests, ways of coping with the disease without sacrificing the caregiver's life, while honoring the person whose mind is dying. In Japan, where women have traditionally been expected to care for the elderly with minimal support from husbands and society, hers is a much-needed message.

Tomoe (Mikiko Harada) is living the most ordinary of Japanese lives when her husband's mother, Masako (Kazuko Yoshiyuki), moves in. Not easy to get along with in the best of times, Masako soon starts behaving strangely, dumping the garbage on a neighbor's doorstep, pitching her box lunch onto the floor and accusing Tomoe of stealing her money. The kids are no help, while husband Yuzo (Masashi Tomizu) asks her to quit her part-time job at a flower warehouse, which Tomoe regards as a refuge of order, sanity and friendship. With her home life descending into chaos, Tomoe escorts a protesting Masako to the hospital, where she is diagnosed with Alzheimer's.

Finally realizing she can't do it alone, Tomoe employs home helpers, but Masako remains a difficult patient. Meanwhile, Yuzo urges Tomoe to do the traditional (and for him, convenient) thing and become Masako's full-time caregiver. And Masako? She, more than anyone, realizes what she is losing and what the end will be. If she becomes frightened, who can blame her?

One day she disappears into a driving rainstorm and is found, drenched, wandering by the docks. Tomoe decides to place her in a group home, and Yuzo reluctantly agrees. Then, the night before Masako is to move into the home, a guilt-stricken Tomoe asks to sleep in her room. Masako agrees -- and reminisces to the younger woman about her girlhood.

The next day, on the way to the home, Masako again retreats into the world of the past, telling Tomoe about her girlhood separation from her mother, her stepfather's violence, her husband's death and her struggles in raising four children. In the midst of her trials, she remembers a saying of her mother's: Even when the branch of a plum tree is broken, it takes nourishment through its bark and its flowers keep blooming. Tomoe begins to see her mother-in-law, for the first time, as another woman rather than an encumbrance -- and brings her back home. With the support of a day-care center for the elderly, Masako discovers a talent for painting, a reason to go on living.

As Masako, Yoshiyuki shows the hurt as well as the hysteria, the human being as well as the victim. But there are probably at least a dozen other actresses who could have played the role as well or better. It is Harada as Tomoe who carries the film and makes it extraordinary. One of the most accomplished actresses of her generation -- she won a Japan Academy award for her performance as an abusive mother in the 1998 "Ai o Kou Hito (Begging for Love)" -- Harada plays Tomoe with little affectation or pretense, with a clear sense of how a real modern woman might behave in her situation. Her Tomoe might impress an older generation as selfish or cold, but she strikes the right contemporary note: protective of her own identity, while wanting, however hesitatingly, to do the right thing. Not a paragon, she is nonetheless capable of growth and change. She is someone we can all recognize and may well even be. If there are any tears in this film, they are for her.

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