06 April 2009

Kirschblüten (Hanami/花見, 2008)

Doris Dörrie is one of Germany’s most praised filmmakers whose career really took off in the 1980s with her comedy Männer (Men, 1985). Her films over the years (features, made-for-TV, documentaries) have been rather hit and miss. The most difficult production must have been Bin ich schön? (Am I Beautiful, 1998) when her husband, the cinematographer Helge Weindler died on location in Spain. Dörrie managed to complete the film and it was a domestic success, winning several awards. Her husband’s death also set her on the spiritual journey that was to result in her big hit of last year Kirchblüten (Cherry Blossoms/Hanami, 2008).

Kirchblüten opened at last year’s Berlinale and has been a word-of-mouth success with audiences in Germany and at festivals abroad. It tells the story of an aging Bavarian couple from Allgäu who have become distanced from their children. This distance is both emotional and physical with two of their adult children living in Berlin and their youngest son who lives in Tokyo. The wife, Trudi, played with great depth of emotion by the always radiant Hannelore Elsner dreams of one day visiting her son in Japan. Her interest in Japanese culture takes form in the shape of images of Mount Fuji and Butoh dance.

Trudi finds out that her husband Rudi has a terminal illness and tries to convince him to consider a trip to Japan, and he puts off the idea to a later date. She is able however to get him to visit their ungrateful children in Berlin, followed by a holiday on the Baltic Sea where Trudi suddenly passes away. This sets Rudi off on a course to reconnect with his wife spiritually by taking the trip to Japan by himself.

The film has been praised highly by many critics, so I feel I must step in with a more cynical point of view. I’m not a big fan of Western films and books that ‘other’ and ‘orientalize’ Japan into something that it is not. This film would have been a much more honest film about a widowed spouse’s spiritual journey to Japan. If Dörrie had made a highly subjective documentary about her discovery of Germany-based Butoh dancer Tadashi Endo (who plays himself in the film) and how her exposure to Japanese culture helped her spiritually, it would have been a more honest, heartfelt film for me. Instead, Dörrie has taken her own personal experience of grief added the plot of Ozu’s Tokyo Story (東京物語,1959) and thrown in some Butoh dance, Mount Fuji, and cherry blossoms to make it visually authentic.

When I realized that the plot has following that of Tokyo Story, I found it disingenuous that she does not credit Kōgo Noda and Yasujiro Ozu’s screenplay. Dörrie has taken exclusive credit as screenwriter, when the screenplay is clearly an adaptation. At first I thought that the biggest problem with the adaptation is that Tokyo Story does not work with German family. Where Ozu’s families (I do not say Japanese families because it is an unfounded stereotype to say that Japanese people are reticent) say little and show much through gesture and facial expression, it would be rare for a modern German family to be so taciturn.

This lead to many problems with the script that detracted from the emotional content of the film. For example, while we can understand that the children are distant from their father because of his self-centredness, but why are they so cold with their mother? Not one of the three children attends the burial in their hometown, which seemed very unlikely to me. Even if she had been a nasty character, Germans are just as likely to do things for ‘saving face’ as Japanese are. Furthermore, would they really have waited at the seaside resort after her death to await the arrival of the youngest son who has to fly all the way home from Tokyo? Surely they would have returned home with the body and done all the funeral arrangements there.

The oddest moment was when the father returned home to their small town without his wife. There is a reverse shot of a neighbour who looks up and sees him and says nothing. I live in a small town in Germany, and this is highly unlikely. At the very least, she would have greeted him. She certainly would have asked about his wife’s whereabouts. This is the moment in the film when I realised that my lack of connection to the film had nothing to do with the transfer of the film from one culture to another. Japanese film critics have for decades made the mistake of categorizing Ozu as the “most Japanese” of filmmakers because of the many traditionally Japanese elements of his films (the framing of the spaces, camera in the sitting position, etc.). However, Ozu’s true genius is the universality of the themes in his films. They are about families and small communities and the complexity of relationships within these small communities.

Tokyo Story also has a female neighbour, but she talks to the couple. She’s even a bit on the nosy side. Her part is not very big, but it is very realistic and an essential part of the believability of the story. I recognized this woman. I met her likeness when living in Nishikata, Tokyo. She was the woman working at the sakana-ya (fishmonger) who would question me about the whereabouts of my children if I walked by on my own. That women knew everything about everyone in Nishikata. I see her likeness here at the bakery in Germany when they ask me about where my children are if I stop in for a sandwich on my own. She too knows everything and everyone in our small town. Ozu had an uncanny ability to create character types whom we recognise in our own day-to-day lives, and within ourselves.

So, although many fans of Kirschblüten praise the film for the profundity of its story, I feel that it is only the outer layer of the proverbial onion. This is always a danger when a filmmaker goes into a culture that isn’t their own and makes it seem deeper and more exotic than one’s own culture. For me this was summed up by the scene in which Rudi goes shopping for cabbage so that he can try to connect with his youngest son by recreating the dish his mother cooked for him when he was growing up. Yes, Japanese grocery stores can be confusing if you cannot read the labels, but who needs help finding cabbage in a Japanese grocery store? It’s not a labyrinth. The layout is very similar to grocery stores anywhere else in the word. Although there are varieties of produce that are unique to Japan, one doesn’t need to read Japanese to recognize a cabbage.

In the same way, I have yet to see a film by a Western director set in Japan that really represents the Japan that I got to know and love. It is always disappointing when Japan (or any other country) gets used as a backdrop for a Westerner who is unable to find themselves at home. Films like Kirschblüten and Sofia Coppola’s Lost in Translation always disappoint because their Japan is beautiful and exotic but populated by one-dimensional Japanese who are not believable. Dörrie has chosen the motif of the cherry blossoms, not only for its beauty and its importance to Japanese culture, but because it is a symbol of the transiency of life. Yet, the coming of cherry blossoms in Japan is also about a coming together of people and I wish that people going to Japan would look beyond the superficial and see the depth, warmth, and diversity of the people living there. At the same time, I think that in her eagerness to portray the disconnect between the children and their parents, Dörrie did a disservice to German small towns by making Rudi and Trudi's town a one-dimensional community.

Lost in Translation / Movie

© Catherine Munroe Hotes 2009