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Delicate slow-burning romantic melodrama with a war-time context
Kazuo Kuroki's 2006 film, The Blossoming of Etsuko Kamiya - his final film, the director dying the same year - is more than likely to meet whatever expectations you might have when you think of serious Japanese cinema, particularly one that is adapted from a play and which looks back at the past specifically at the war years. It's formal, sombre, reflective and poetic, and reminiscent inevitably of the post-war films of Yasujiro Ozu. Stylistically, it may have little in common with Ozu's tatami-mat camera angles, but its straightforward dialogue-driven approach, built around a family situation that uses few locations, similarly succeeds in evoking a great deal more than is apparent on the surface.
Structurally, based on a play by Masataka Matsuda, the film could hardly be more theatrically formal in its approach, Kuroki maintaining a setting of only four scenes without any real opening-out of the work. Most of the film takes place in a single room over the period of one two significant weeks in 1945, the main body of the work bookended by a present-day prologue and epilogue. It's tempting to think that a more cinematic approach might have been attempted without any apparent detrimental impact on the story, but in reality the film is so tightly structured, so meticulous in its choice of words and its use of imagery, that any attempt to over-illustrate it with superfluous elements would probably only have weakened the delicate balance that has been so carefully put in place.
Even the fact that the main element of story is looked back on from the present day has great significance. On the surface the opening is deceptively simple, an elderly lady shown conversing with her sick husband on the roof of a hospital. The sun is setting in a brilliant red sky, as the couple debate seemingly inconsequentially about whether it is getting too chilly to be sitting there any longer. However mundane the spoken dialogue appears to be however, it's clear that there is deeper poetic resonance here. This is a film that not just about reflection on the past from the present day, but it is also about looking ahead to the future, to the unknown, to the hope of what lies "beyond the mountains" that the crimson clouds of the sunset seem to be floating towards. Where those sentiments derive from is revealed as the old man, Nagamasa, perhaps mindful of approaching the end of his life, reflects back on the war and asks a question that has significance not just for himself, but one that relates to a whole generation that has shaped modern Japan. "Why am I alive? Why didn't I die like the others?"
The period of main part of the drama in 1945, and some of the explicit references that are made, similarly gains extra significance because of its relevance to the present-day and with the hindsight gained. On the surface, the story remains simple, related to a marriage proposal that has been made to Etsuko Kamiya, a young woman who is living with her elder brother Yatsutada and his wife Fusa in the remote village of Komentsu in the Kagoshima prefecture, her parents having died during the air raids on Tokyo. Etsuko is surprised and clearly a little disappointed that the marriage proposal hasn't come from Mr Akashi -a pilot in the Japanese airforce -who she is clearly in love with, but has actually been proposed by him on behalf of a friend, Nagayo, a humble mechanic.
Amidst much formal ceremony of the visits by Akashi and Nagayo to the Kamiya household, including preparations of food and serving of tea, the weight of circumstances are revealed - in a way we would only recognise from the present - by what is suggested by the setting of the story in early Spring of 1945 when the likelihood of Japan losing the war was apparent if not consciously acknowledged, by references to Nagayo's hometown of Nagasaki, and by the revelation that Akashi is about to leave to take part in the battle of Okinawa. As a pilot in the Japanese airforce, that only leaves one possible outcome, and it explains and adds poignancy to his reasons for suggesting another match for Etsuko and for his behaviour during the visit to her household.
The film can only bear so much weighty resonance, however indirectly applied, but it balances it with a much more delicate, poetic and at times even humorous approach in the awkwardness of the encounters that, notwithstanding the nature of the war, reflects the beauty of living in the moment. Etsuko can hear the sound of waves - even though the village is far from the sea - and the petals of the cherry blossom that has only just burst into full bloom are already beginning to fall. The Blossoming of Etsuko Kamiya gathers up all these poetic references and contrasting undercurrents in a way that is utterly Japanese, creating complex unspoken resonances in the contradiction of happiness being found in a time of sorrow, on the sadness of the transitory nature of life and the beauty that is found even in its decline. It's the structure of the work itself and in how it addresses and acknowledges the past from the present while looking out to the ocean that may lie beyond the mountains, that the film tackles those difficult questions about those events that have shaped and still hold tremendous influence over modern-day Japan.
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