Friday, July 15, 2016

Japan Cuts ’15: Nagasaki: Memories of My Son

During WWII, Kokura was a major center of munitions production, but it dodged the mother of all bullets twice. It was the back-up target for Hiroshima and the primary target for the mission that ultimately switched to the secondary target of Nagasaki. That was profoundly tragic news for Nobuko Fukuhara. She would survive, but her son Koji was incinerated without a trace. Three years later, she will try to move on with a little help from his ghost in Yoji Yamada’s Nagasaki: Memories of My Son (a.k.a. Living with My Mother, trailer here), which screens during this year’s Japan Cuts: Festival of New Japanese Film in New York.

Fukuhara’s husband was never a factor and her eldest son was killed in combat, but she soldiered on well enough, because Koji was truly the apple of her eye. As a medical student, he had a draft deferment, which seemed fortunate at the time, but his medical college was pretty much dead center in the blast radius. It was hard for Fukuhara to let go, but she finally gives up her last false hopes during his three-year memorial ceremony. Yet, that was exactly what was needed to allow Koji’s spirit to approach her.

It is clearly a bittersweet reunion, but it definitely provides Fukuhara some solace. However, his still grieving fiancée Machiko Sata is still not ready to move on and he is not ready to let go of her. Despite her mixed emotions, Mother Fukuhara will try to convince them both to release each other.

Frankly, Yamada is about the only filmmaker working today who can craft such an achingly sentimental drama without taking a single falsely melodramatic step. Clearly, Nagasaki is a natural companion film to Yamada’s Kabei: Our Mother, but somehow it manages to be less dark and more tragic.

Once again, Sayuri Yoshinaga quietly devastates us over and over again as Fukuhara, just as she did in Kabei. If anything, she is even sadder and more humane this time around. Kazunari Ninomiya is strangely chipper for a dead person, but he actually helps shake off the film’s inherent moroseness, dialing it down and locking-in when it matters. Haru Kuroki is also quite touching as Sata, developing some truly touching surrogate mother-daughter chemistry with Yoshinaga. To completely rip out our heartstrings, Kenichi Kato and Isao Hashizume add memorable poignancy as Yoshinaga’s discouraged black marketeer suitor and Koji’s even less fortunate professor, respectively.

Unlike Kabei, Nagasaki does not offer much explicit criticism of the Imperial war machine, but the grim costs of war are always obvious and inescapable. Although it earns major tears down the stretch, it is never a downer film. In fact, it is unusually warm and lovely. Highly recommended, Nagasaki: Memories of My Son screens this Sunday (7/17) at the Japan Society, as part of Japan Cuts 2016.