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Friday, May 12, 2006

Hankies out as it's time to cry yourself blind

Ashita no Kioku

Rating: * * * 1/2 (out of 5)
Director: Yukihiko Tsutsumi
Running time: 122 minutes
Language: Japanese
Opens May 13
[See Japan Times movie listings]

Alzheimer's and cancer are the two plot engines driving much of Japanese medical melodrama, with the former gaining on the latter as life spans lengthen and the number of senile correspondingly grows.

News photo
Ken Watanabe and Kanako Higuchi in "Ashita no Kioku"

One recent film, Nobuhiko Hosaka's "So Kamoshirenai," is about an elderly couple who both expire -- Izumi Yukimura's wife by Alzheimer's, Harudanji Katsura's husband by cancer. A three-hankie two-fer, you might say.

The usual point of view in Alzheimer's films is that of the caregivers, who may suffer agonies of impotence, frustration and grief, but at least end their ordeals with their minds intact -- and their characters strengthened. The elderly they are tending, on the other hand, are typically shown from the outside and, by the last reel, become the lovable, harmless boke rojin (senile oldies) of cultural stereotype. The object is to inspire sighs and tears for human frailty -- at one remove.

"Ashita no Kioku (Memories of Tomorrow)" falls into the medical melodrama genre category, but its Alzheimer's victim is a man not yet 50, in what should be his professional and personal prime. Also, director Yukihiko Tsutsumi takes the victim's perspective with a gut-wrenching specificity. This, I thought as I watched the film, is what it's like to have, not just the occasional senior moment, but one's entire mental world dissolve away like ice crystals in the sun, leaving nothing but a puddle, mist -- vacuum.

Ken Watanabe, who is now Hollywood's best-known Japanese actor for his work in "The Last Samurai," "Batman Returns" and "Memoirs of a Geisha," plays the afflicted hero with the sort of heart-and-soul performance that wins Oscars. The technical and emotional grandstanding common to these performances, however, is conspicuous by its absence. Instead, Watanabe, who has fought his own life-or-death battle with leukemia from age 30, plays his character -- a successful ad agency executive -- from the inside, in all his confusion, terror and despair.

Those who know Watanabe only from his more macho roles will be surprised (or shocked) at how convincingly he declines to a shrunken, prematurely aged shell. Think Nicholas Cage in "Leaving Las Vegas," minus the booze pallor and shakes. Watanabe, who also executive produced the film from a novel by Hiroshi Ogiwara, may have bulked down for the part, but the core of his performance is spiritual transformation -- a terrifyingly natural emptying out.

The story begins with the exec, Saeki (Watanabe), directing a pitch for a major account. He and his team snag it, but his chronic memory lapses -- a forgotten name here, a missed meeting there -- begin interfering with his job. Together with wife Emiko (Kanako Higuchi), a dutiful but much put-upon sort, he goes to the hospital for tests and gets the devastating diagnosis. Tempted to end it all, he is dissuaded by his young doctor's vow to do everything possible, and Emiko's reminder that their only daughter (Kazue Fukiishi) is about to get married and have their first grandchild.

With the goals of a wedding and childbirth to spur him on, he begins treatment, but despite all Emiko's efforts, including health foods and detailed memos, his decline continues. He manages to get through the wedding speech -- an ordeal for even the healthy -- but finally realizes he can no longer keep up pretenses at work -- or anywhere else. He resigns first as department chief, then from the company.

Meanwhile, Emiko is beginning a new career as a saleswoman at an upscale pottery shop, continuing an interest both of them shared in their youth. Saeki starts to make pottery himself, but becomes increasingly confused, lonely and angry. How could this be happening to him, so relentlessly and soon? He lashes out -- but finds no escape.

This downward spiral is standard for an Alzheimer's drama, but Tsutsumi, a maker of hit commercials who recently directed the horror sensation "Forbidden Siren," takes us into his hero's mental world, whirling the camera, distorting the image and otherwise expressing Saeki's disorientation and isolation. The result is reminiscent of the last scenes of "2001: A Space Odyssey," when Dave Bowman is alone in an alien world, watching his life slip away with an eerie rapidity.

As Emiko, Kanako Higuchi first impresses as a strained, sexless paragon -- but as her husband disappears before her eyes, her mask of empathy and composure shatters -- and she explodes with anger and resentment over what she is losing -- and never had. She still loves him, though, with a fierceness that is all the more powerful for being so contained.

"Ashita no Kioku" may smooth over certain aspects of the disease, including the final, irreversible descent, but it also captures something of its horror and pathos. And it also proves that Watanabe can act, in a role he was meant to play. Who knows if he will find another, but this very personal film proves that, in at least its movie stars, Japan is exporting its best.

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