3 Films About Cherry Blossoms You Cannot Miss This Hanami Season

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  • Japan’s cherry blossom season is a spring of inspiration for film-makers around the world, who capture and interpret this beautiful time of the year in their own style and language. The essence of cherry blossoms is beautifully presented in these 3 films – a documentary on endurance and survival, an animated tale of fleeting joy and loneliness, and a drama revolving around end-of-life regrets and fulfillment.

    The Tsunami and the Cherry Blossom

    Initial release: 12 September 2011 (Toronto)
    Director: Lucy Walker
    Length: 41 mins

    Often referred to as a “cinematic haiku”, this short documentary by Lucy Walker takes the viewer to the coasts of Miyagi, which were ravaged by a tsunami caused by an undersea earthquake measuring 9.1 on the Richter scale—the largest to hit Japan—on 11 March, 2011. This is a story of destruction, loss, acceptance and hope—of people who found the courage for revival and reconstruction of lives so badly damaged, as the cherry blossom season begins.

    The first few minutes of the film trips us back to the moment the waves came, and the sweeping apocalyptic scenes they left in their trail. Walker fills every minute with poignant accounts of what happened that day, and how people were picking up whatever remnants of their lives, as they buried their dead. An especially heart-wrenching scene of graves marked only by numbers that grew from single digits to thousands puts a lot of perspective on the magnitude of the loss and the amount of inner strength required to remain sane.

    She only lets us off briefly on those catastrophic images, with intersperses of cheerful scenes elsewhere in Japan, as the first blooms of cherry blossoms were sighted. The director asked, “What would the cherry blossoms feel like this year, when there is nothing pretty and fluffy about life at all, when the fragility of life is so horrifically painful and present?

    It is heartening to hear the same tone of excitement when the first blooms were spotted on a cherry tree sticking out of the rubble at the disaster site. Even in times of immense heartache, the flowers could somehow relieve people of their misery, however momentarily, as they must continue to let go of despair, and let in hope.

    The plants are hanging in there, so us humans better do it too.

    What is interesting:

    I find it amazing how human beings, and the cherry trees, being so small and fragile, can stand up against something as massive and destructive as the tsunami and the emotional whirlpool that it leaves behind.

    The road to recovery has been long and arduous. As things gradually return to normal, the documentary serves to remind us of the victims’ resilience in adversity, who continue to inspire not just the Japanese people but the world. Tokyo 2020 has been dubbed the “Reconstruction Olympics”. Next year, just past the 9th anniversary of the Great Tohoku Earthquake, at the start of the cherry blossom season, the Olympic torch relay will begin in Fukushima, a city that was brought to its knees by the nuclear reactor meltdown. The “Sakura Torch” has been inspired by the drawings of children in the disaster area as a symbol of hope in the darkest days of their young lives. Recycled aluminium from prefabricated housing units for those who were displaced make up roughly 30% of the torch.

    Another symbol of hope and renewal is the expansion of Asahi Kindergarten in Minamisanriku, one of the worst-hit regions. The kindergarten was completed in 2012 to replace the one that was destroyed, but another storey had to be added as more residents returned. The kindergarten was constructed using 400-year-old cedar trees that were destroyed by the tsunami – today, the trees have become the space that contains the life and laughter of a new generation of children born after the tsunami.

    If you’re traveling through Miyagi, how about a detour to Minamisanriku, now elevated by several meters, to show the townspeople some support as they rebuild their community. Or join the residents of Fukushima to send off Olympic athletes on their torch relay run next cherry blossom season.

    5 Centimeters Per Second

    Initial release: 03 March 2007 (Japan)
    Director: Shinkai Makoto
    Length: 63 mins

    If you like the global hit Kimi no Na Wa (Your Name), you may be drawn to Shinkai Makoto’s films from when he was an indie animator. This is only Shinkai’s second feature film, after “The Place Promised In Our Early Days”. Shinkai is also a manga artist, and a few of his films are adaptations of his own manga, including this one.

    This hour-long animation chronicles the coming-of-age of its main protagonist, Takaki, in 3 chapters. Chapter 1 opens with the cherry blossom season when Takaki is an elementary school student. This will be the last time he is hanging out with his best friend, Akari, who is moving away to Tochigi, quite some distance from Tokyo. As they traverse the city amidst falling cherry blossom petals, Takaki gets left behind when the barrier lowers at the railway crossing. Standing at opposite sides of the tracks, Akari and Takaki promise to meet again during sakura season next year, before a moving train runs between them.

    We are drawn into the emotional worlds of the characters, in the form of letters and phone calls, as Takaki and Akari narrate their own feelings. Through Shinkai’s masterful storytelling and editing, we can feel their sense of helplessness, as children who have no control but to follow the plans of their families. When Takaki finds out that his family is moving to Kagoshima, putting even more distance between him and Akari, the two arrange to meet on March 4. It is hardly the cherry blossom season that they look forward to, but the snow swirls around them in the same slow pace of cherry blossom petals—5 centimeters per second—for enough romance and regrets to take place.

    The next 2 chapters revolve around Takaki’s life – high school, college, work. Akari has all but disappeared from Takaki’s life. Is that so, or does Takaki have a plan, as he grows up and gains more control over his life? One day, as a young man in Chapter 3, he walks past a young woman who feels like Akari. The ending of the film brings us back to the beginning – Takaki and Akari once again stand on opposite sides of the tracks, as a moving train separates them and cherry blossom petals drift all around, like thoughts swirling in the audience’s minds. We wonder if they would turn and find each other again, or if this relationship has come full circle and they will both move on now.

    What is interesting:

    Do sakura petals really fall at 5 centimeters per second?

    Like the slow drift of cherry blossom petals to the ground, the film’s pace can sometimes be painfully frustrating. Yet this is also the beauty of it. Unlike most animes, Shinkai’s work is steeped in realism and rich in detail, influenced by his time at a game design company where he had to construct hyper-realistic environments.

    Shinkai would take photos of locations and paint over them to create the environments for his films, such as the gorgeous but completely believable scenes of Tokyo and Shinjuku-koen in “Garden of Words”.

    Its aesthetic value is reason enough for us to watch a Shinkai animation, but be captivated also by Shinkai’s knack of distilling complex layers of emotions. In “5 Centimeters per Second”, he masterfully choreographs sequences that unfold slowly and almost repetitively, to convey the angst of being stuck in time and having zero control, even as we know something precious is slowly slipping away. This is a recurring theme in Shinkai’s films, whose poetic and bittersweet tales revolve around separation, longing and loneliness.

    Shinkai Makoto is one of a few animators who are favorably compared to Miyazaki Hayao, arguably Japan’s most famous and most exported animation master today. Yet, I feel that this comparison is unnecessary, as Shinkai has developed his own unique visual and storytelling style that is quite distinct from either Miyazaki’s or Studio Ghibli’s.

    If you’re curious about Japanese animation, be sure to check out some amazing films from these directors, for a start – the accomplished Hosoda Mamoru (The Boy and The Beast, Wolf Children) and Hara Keiichi (Colorful, Miss Hokusai), the lesser known director but accomplished animator Hiroyuki Okiura (A Letter to Momo) and the young and talented Yamada Naoko Yamada Naoko (A Silent Voice).

    Kirschblüten – Hanami / Cherry Blossoms

    Initial Release: 6 March 2008 (Germany)
    Director: Doris Dörrie
    Length: 127 mins

    This film by celebrated German film-maker Doris Dörrie deals with ageing, loss and regrets. Many critics have likened it to a Japanese masterpiece from 1953 – “Tokyo Story” by Ozu Yasujirō that put the spotlight on family ties and ageing, one of the growing social issues facing First World nations, including Japan.

    Trudi and Rudi are an elderly couple from Bavaria, whose grown, and somewhat estranged, children have moved away. Trudi is fascinated with Japan and dreams of visiting the country one day. Upon learning of Rudi’s terminal illness, which he himself is unaware of, Trudi tries persuading him to take a trip to Japan together. Rudi refuses. They then decide to visit their children in Berlin, followed by a trip to the Baltic Sea, where Trudi passes away suddenly.

    All alone now, Rudi gradually discovers the sacrifices that his wife had made for the sake of the family, including her dreams of studying butoh in Japan. The more he delves into his wife’s life, the more Rudi is struck by the fact that he hardly knows her at all. With a heart packed with devastation and regrets, Rudi is determined to spiritually connect with his wife – and sets off on a journey to Japan, to fulfill Trudi’s wildest dreams.

    In Japan, Rudi faces his own share of travails. Out of memory and guilt for his wife, Rudi has packed Trudi’s clothes with him. At his son’s home, Rudi puts them on in memory of Trudi. He is caught in the act by his son, who is disgusted with his father’s “perverted” actions and their relationship sours even further. Alone, Rudi wanders aimlessly across Tokyo. Curious visits to strip joints and hostesses only aggravates his sense of loneliness. It is not until he comes to a park and finds a strange girl with white painted face and a pink telephone, moving in motions that he vaguely remembers from the butoh performance he had seen with Trudi in Berlin, that he feels a sense of belongingness again. The girl, Yu, has just lost her mother a year ago and is now living in a tent. If anyone could understand what Rudi is going through, it is Yu.

    The cathartic experience between them creates an extraordinary bond between Yu and Rudi, despite the language barrier where they both have to communicate in English, a language that is quite alien to both of them. When Rudi relays to Yu his wife’s desire to see the sacred Mount Fuji, Yu agrees to travel with him, as Rudi’s health continues to deteriorate as the days go by. Alas, the “shy” Mount Fuji keeps itself hidden for days on end, as both Yu and Rudi wonder if they could ever fulfill Trudi’s wish.

    What is interesting:

    This melodramatic film is not for everyone, but the one thing that captivates me is the mysterious dance called butoh, which means “dance of darkness”. It was founded after World War II by Hijikata Tatsumi and Ohno Kazuo, who are known as the “heart” and “soul” of butoh, respectively. Butoh is a dance of the unconscious, an expression of deep-seated emotions and feelings that we have been unable to express. Through butoh, we bring these thoughts and feelings to the surface, to confront them and to transform them.

    Death is a key theme in butoh, in similar ways how cherry blossoms remind us of the transience of life and to confront the eventuality of death. In fact, According to Hijikata, “butoh is not a dance, it is existence“. A butoh dancer does not react to a set of choreography, but lets his memories, feelings and imagination dictate his movement. This is why, to a spectator, butoh can appear raw and scary, with largely grotesque gestures, because it elicits the fears that people refuse to face. But to the dancer, it is very much about letting go of the ghosts within, and it becomes almost a meditative experience – people have said that when Ohno danced, he radiated joy.

    If butoh piques your interest too, here is where you can learn more about this strange but mesmerizing art form, or even participate in a butoh workshop.