Thursday, March 08, 2012

Extreme Private Ethos: Death of a Japanese Salesman

They were not Mad Men, they were Salarymen. Tomoaki Sunada was part of the postwar generation of professionals who rebuilt Japan into a leading world economic power. Unfortunately, just as Sunada begins to enjoy his sunset years, he is diagnosed with advanced-stage cancer. True to methodical form, Sunada develops an action plan for his impending demise, as his youngest daughter, director-cinematographer-editor Mami Sunada documents in Death of a Japanese Salesman (a.k.a. Ending Note, trailer here), which opens Extreme Private Ethos, the Asia Society’s new film series surveying provocatively intimate Japanese documentaries, this Saturday in New York.

While the current title sounds like an echo of the Miller play that is purely accidental (or inappropriate). When Sunada retires from his chemical company, he is a well respected member of the board. He has good relations with his son and two daughters, while absolutely doting on his granddaughters when he visits America. Though the Sunadas’ marriage had been increasingly strained, they had reconciled mere months before his diagnosis. Sunada’s end will be a happier tragedy than Willie Loman’s, dying before his aged mother, but leaving with few regrets.

Intimate hardly begins to describe Sunada’s documentary. She filmed some of the most private moments a family can have, frequently exasperating her father. Yet, somehow it does not feel voyeuristic or exploitative. Through her narration, in her voice but her father’s words, she seems to come to terms with his passing in a way that is quite touching.

DOAJS will interest cineastes beyond its up close and personal drama. It was produced by Japanese auteur Hirokazu Kore-eda, on whose recent films Mami Sunada worked as a production assistant, including the thematically related Still Walking. Yet for many, the bittersweet relationship between the salaryman and his vexing single daughter will more readily bring to mind the Ozu canon.

For obvious reasons, DOAJS is often hard to watch, but much like GONTITI’s soundtrack for Still Walking, alt-folker Hanaregumi’s music helps keep the tone more wistful than maudlin. Nowhere near as manipulative as one might expect, it still packs a tremendous emotional punch. As a result, it is rather earnestly recommended to those currently in a good mental place. Indeed, all but the most jaded viewers are certain to get choked up when it kicks off Extreme Private Ethos this Saturday afternoon (3/10) at the Asia Society.