Movie Review: Sakura Garden in the North (北の桜守)

Road trip movies are always full of revelation and catharsis but the Japanese film, SAKURA GARDEN IN THE NORTH, may just have taken these to a whole new level. The emotional journey of the saintly Tetsu Ezure and her younger son, Shujiro, is almost as painful to hear as it is to sit through.

The story opens in August 1945. Although Hiroshima and Nagasaki have just been destroyed by atom bombs, the war is a world away from the Ezure family and their close-knit Japanese community on Sakhalin Island… that is, until the Russian Army invades. The family’s patriarch Tokujiro (Hiroshi Abe/阿部寛, THE CRIMES THAT BIND) decides to stay behind and fight, and he tells his wife, Tetsu (four-time Japan Academy Best Actress award winner Sayuri Yoshinaga/吉永小百合, NAGASAKI: MEMORIES OF MY SON), to take their two young sons, Seitaro and Shujiro, and flee with the rest of the village to Hokkaido, leaving behind their two young cherry trees that have just begun to blossom for the first time. It’s both an arduous and perilous journey for Tetsu and the kids as they dodge the bullets fired from Russian warplanes on their way to the coast where they hope to catch a boat across the strait that separates the two islands. Conditions for the family only gets worse in Hokkaido as food is scarce and the black market for what little food there is has driven prices beyond their financial reach.

Fast forward about ten years and Tetsu tells Shujiro (Masato Sakai/堺雅人) to leave her and make a life for himself. Fast forward again, this time to 1971, and Shujiro is now married to Mari (Ryoko Shinohara/篠原涼子), the daughter of a wealthy Japanese man who made his fortune creating a chain of hot dog restaurants in the US. Shujiro has just opened the company’s bridgehead store in Sapporo on the eve of the 1972 Winter Olympics when the city is busily gearing up for the onslaught of foreign tourists who will want to eat their American-style food. But Shujiro doesn’t seem to have his father-in-law’s business acumen and, to add to his woes, he gets word that his mother is living in poverty in Abashiri, the coastal town they settled in after arriving in Hokkaido. At the worst possible time for him, Shujiro decides to trek up to Abashiri to reunite with Tetsu only to find her in even worse shape than he imagined. He brings her back to Sapporo much to the frustration of Mari but the three manage to make it work as best they can. Tetsu’s memories of that unhappy time after the war, however, keep flooding back to her so Shujiro decides to take her on a road trip up to the coast so that she can hopefully find some resolution. Tetsu seems to be making progress but one day she disappears, leaving Shujiro to work out where she could have gone.

If SAKURA GARDEN IN THE NORTH would have been a book, I could see that it would have been interesting reading with its sweeping storyline, but this film is achingly tedious with its over-the-top, melodramatic performances by the film’s two leads who are woefully miscast as well as its clumsy direction. This is apparently actress Yoshinaga’s 120th on-screen performance, which is an incredible achievement but there’s a vast difference between quantity and quality. With the greatest of respect to the lady, she is just too old to play the part of Tetsu. At worst, Tetsu would be 60 in 1971. Yoshinaga is 73 and all the pancake makeup in the world won’t make her look 60. It becomes even more ridiculous when Oscar®-winning director, Yojiro Takita/田洋二郎 (DEPARTURES/おくりびと), puts her in the 1945 scenes opposite Abe, an actor who is 21 years younger than she is. Actor Sakai, for his part, is just as miscast with his one facial expression throughout – that of someone who has just sucked on a dozen lemons.

Adding to the pain of watching this film, the director inserts scenes from what might be called the stage version of “Sakura Garden in the North”, not that there is such a thing, as far as I know. But if there would be, it wouldn’t be bad but it just doesn’t belong here. The film moves along with a certain tone and pacing, and then it switches to the play with its dramatic staging, and then goes back to the movie. It simply doesn’t work and the production really hits rock bottom when the stage actors, who are the same as in the movie, come together to sing a tear-jerking anthem over the film’s closing credits.

SAKURA GARDEN IN THE NORTH might have been a good film if it would have just concentrated on the wartime story or if it was just the stage play on screen. As it is, though, it’s the kind of film that will make you wonder why you didn’t say home and wash your floors instead. This road trip is strictly for masochists and Sayurisuto.

Watch the review recorded on Facebook Live in RTHK Radio 4’s studio on Thursday, August 23rd at 8:30 am HK time!

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