I enjoyed this film that sneaked out in the UK on a single print from Dogwoof – who appear to have offered it no support at all. In Germany it was a significant hit (1.1 million admissions) and it seems to have had a reasonable distribution in North America. The reviews in the UK were generally OK I think, but in the US I’ve come across some real stinkers in which the filmmaker is accused of banality and ‘hippie fripperies’. It’s clearly a film that touches the ‘superior art’ button in some critics. I know I’m prone to this kind of response, so I’ll proceed with care.
Doris Dörrie is a German filmmaker who I’ve tended to associate with comedies – often about gender relations. I’m not sure that I’ve seen any of her earlier films. If I have, I don’t remember. I watched this film without any other preconceptions and was quickly aware that the narrative in the first half closely follows that of Ozu’s Tokyo Story (1953). Perhaps more surprising, the second half of the film corresponds more closely to aspects of Zhang Yimou’s Riding Along for Thousands of Miles and also includes sequences that could remind audiences of Sofia Coppola’s Lost in Translation. In a way, none of this is surprising since the central narrative ideas are universal. However, any filmmaker foregrounding a debt to Ozu needs to tread carefully. I thought Dörrie’s script and direction, and especially the performances of her leads, kept the narrative simple and provided a moving experience for the audience. Others clearly don’t agree.
If you don’t know Tokyo Story, it involves an older couple living in Osaka who decide at short notice to visit their grown-up children in Tokyo. Their son and daughter have busy lives with jobs and families and the parents feel as if they are imposing. They visit a spa to relieve the burden and the only real welcome they receive is from their dead son’s young widow. There is also another son who doesn’t live in Tokyo. Dörrie locates her parental couple in rural Bavaria and their children in Berlin and Tokyo. Ozu’s young widow becomes their daughter’s lesbian partner. Dörrie also utilises two other Ozu traits – trains and what has been termed the ‘pillow shot’. The film is a rail fetishist’s dream with numerous railway scenes in both Germany and Japan. The ‘pillow shot’ in Ozu’s mise en scène is a ‘cutaway’ to a shot of a deserted street or landscape placed between the shots of characters inside buildings and engaged in some form of discourse. Personally, I thought that Dörrie used this idea very well and I didn’t find the images banal.
There are a number of specific Japanese elements in the German sequences that become of great significance when the story moves to Tokyo. The first is the work of the artist Hokusai and specifically his famous series of woodblock prints, 36 Views of Mount Fuji produced in the 1830s. Hokusai was very popular in Japan and woodblock prints were arguably the world’s first mass medium. Contrasted with this is a much more modern Japanese cultural form, butoh – a form of contemporary dance developed in the 1950s. Both the relatively old and the new Japanese cultural forms have fans in the West and Dörrie uses this as the basis for the trip to Japan. The Zhang Yimou film Riding Along For Thousands of Miles sees a father travelling to rural China to film the folk opera that was his dying son’s research objective. In Cherry Blossoms, the quest is to see one of Hokusai’s views of Fuji, the ‘shy mountain’. The quest means engagement with a totally different language and culture and finding a sympathetic local to act as a guide.
Japanese culture produces many festivals, often associated with seasonal phenomena and the spirits that inhabit places of natural beauty. The blooming of the cherry tree for a few weeks in Spring is the signal for ‘viewing parties’ – social gatherings beneath the trees. (The festival is known as hanami.) Dörrie uses one of these in a Tokyo park as a central focus for her Japan-set narrative – one in which a bewildered German tries to find some form of spiritual connection. Unlike Coppola whose film controversially offers a postmodernist view of Tokyo, Dörrie just lets us struggle with her German character to comprehend another culture through mundane actions like buying a cabbage. If this is cinematic banality (“unoriginal and boring”) for some critics, I think that they must inhabit very different worlds to the one I experience.
I think that most adults in their thirties with ageing parents or most couples in their sixties with grown-up children will find this film to be moving and gently provocative in thinking about how they feel as parents and children. If it also gets anyone interested in Ozu, Zhang, Hokusai or simply visiting Tokyo that would be a bonus. I’d certainly recommend it. The music is also terrific with some pieces by Ryuichi Sakamoto.
Here is the trailer from the film. Spoiler – it rather gives away the plot twists, but apart from that gives a fair indication of the film.