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A woman looks back on her family's life in Tokyo before and during WWII. A maid arrives from the countryside to work for an upper middle class family. She fits in well, but everyone's emotions are stirred up with the arrival of a student.
This is simply a splendid film regarding the nature of life and death and the qualities that make life worth living.
Husband and wife move from the big city to the Husband's home town, an absolutely beautiful farming village in the mountains, where they hope to escape the stress and hectic lifestyle. The husband (played by Akira Terao most notably from Akira Kurosawa's YUME) is a novelist and a cherry blossom farmer, which translates to unemployed dreamer, while the wife is a successful medical doctor who specializes in cancer and cancer research.
In the village, they meet Ume-san, a 96-year old woman who is still going strong, Sayori, a late-teens-ish girl who writes down Ume-san's words and composes them into the "Letters from teh Mountain" column for the village newsletter, the husband's mentor who now has stomach cancer, the village townsfolk, and the towns children.
The Wife has taken a position at the local clinic, but b/c of her stress/panic disorder, she decides to only work 3 days a week. This allows her and her husband to spend much of their time discovering the natural wonders of the countryside (long walks in the forest, picking flowers, fishing, ...) and visiting and meeting the local people.
Then, just as the wife is relaxing, overcoming her anxieties and stress, sleeping easily without the need for sleeping pills, and becoming happy, she finds that she must return to the life of cancer doctor to try to save the life of Sayori, who has contracted a throat sarcoma.
What elevate this movie from good to excellent are the outstanding performances, particularly of the wife, and the transcendant cinematography. Kanako Higuchi gives an excellent and somewhat understated performance as the wife who begins the film very stiff, her body movements and her speaking mannerisms, and the gradual change is very impressive. When she breaks into a smile and skips down a road, this transformation is complete but feels quite natural. Akira Terao spends much of his time looking happy and being benevolent, which is fine. I am convinced that many of the village people were played by actual villagers. They have a presence about them that feels authentic and is not wrapped with "acting." I found it quite refreshing. And i absolutely fell in love with Tanie Kitabayashi as the elderly Ume. She's a crazy old bat, but damned lovable, just like your own granny. And i also fell in love with Sayori b/c she's so damn sweet and beautiful.
The cinematgraphy is absolutely gorgeous. The scenes show you a land that you may dream about, but never expect to see. Gorgeous mountainscapes, serene gardens, special sunrises. Colors sparkle and the grass is so vivid you could just smell it. The gnats flying about make you want to wave your hand in front of your face. Absolutely first rate.
Be warned, however, that some might find this film to be quite SLOW. PLOT is not the point here, rather emotion, character, mediation on life. For the first hour to ninety minutes, the characters are just meeting and learning about each other. It's not until the last 30 min that the crisis occurs. However, for me, this was a non issue. The film has a very authentic feel to it. Not just regarding the scenery and landscapes, but the genuine emotions of the characters. I had no doubt that these two were a married ocuple and deeply in love with each other. I found myself laughing out loud at some moments, not b/c it was side-splitting funny, but just gently humorous and in an emotionally warm environment.
There is a message about life and how we should live, but to its credit, it is not a hit-you-over-the-head statement.
In conclusion, it's a quiet film, a mediation on life seen thru the eyes of a 43 year old woman. it doesn't jerk tears or bowl you over withlaughter, but it makes you smile and it makes you sigh. Its strongest facet is its authenticity in every fashion. It is one of the finer films i have seen in quite some time.
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