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A movie should stand on its own, and "Memories of Tomorrow" does, but it's closely associated - at least in this viewer's mind - with three recent outstanding films:
Sarah Polley's "Away from Her"
Clint Eastwood's "Letters from Iwo Jima"
Alain Corneau's "Fear and Trembling"
As "Away from Her," "Memories of Tomorrow" is about Alzheimer's. In fact, Yukihiko Tsutsumi's film from Hiroshi Ogiwara's novel came out in Japan last year, at the same time Polley's film, with Julie Christie, had its first screening in her native Canada.
No copycat business here, the two are exact contemporaries, both arriving in the U.S. this year. However, Polley's film is not at all what you'd expect from the topic, Tsutsumi's is.
The star of "Iwo Jima" was Ken Watanabe, one of the best-known actors in Japan, but also known in this country from "Memoirs of a Geisha," "Batman Begins," and "The Last Samurai." Watanabe is the end- and be-all of "Memories of Tomorrow," on screen, and acting up a storm, pretty much two hours straight.
"Fear and Trembling" gave a visceral, stomach-punching picture of Japan's super-intense, near-sadistic "salaryman" mentality, the world of 18-hour days, total dependence on the job, and numerous instances of karo-shi, or death from overwork.
The character Watanabe plays in "Memories of Tomorrow," a mid-level executive in a big ad agency, is on top of that cruel food chain, but is getting chewed up himself in the process, neglecting his wife (the luminous Kanako Higuchi, whose career goes back to the 1989 Zatoichi), his pregnant and yet-to-be-married daughter, and pretty much everything else.
Unlike the large strokes and many implied acts and facts in "Away from Her," the onset and development of Alzheimer's in the Japanese film is detailed, explicit, repetitive - and quite unnecessary. One original touch is showing how the illness has a kind of positive effect on the patient, slowing down and humanizing him.
After the utter humiliation of realizing his incompetence (in the single-virtue office environment), the Watanabe character is discovering life's simple pleasures, and long-neglected relationships. These bright spots in the oncoming darkness (and Higuchi's presence) lift the film from what otherwise would be an unrelievedly grim experience.
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