Director: Yōjirō Takita
Cast: Sayuri Yoshinaga, Masato Sakai, Ryoko Shinohara, Hiroshi Abe, Koichi Sato, Ittoku Kishibe, Masatoshi Nakamura, Reiko Takashima, Tsurube Shofukutei, Toshiyuki Nagashima, Ken Yasuda, Toru Nomaguchi, Katsuya Maiguma
Runtime: 2 hrs 6 mins
Rating: PG (Some Violence)
Released By: Golden Village Pictures, mm2 Entertainment
Opening Day: 10 May 2018
Synopsis: Spring of 1945, cherry blossoms flower in southern Sakhalin, a symbol of hope for Tetsu Ezure and her family. But with the Soviet Union’s invasion the following August they flee to Abashiri, Hokkaido, to a life of harsh cold and hunger through which they struggle to survive. 1971, younger son Shujiro, now grown, has returned to Japan where he meets his mother for the first time in fifteen years. The war is over but her post-traumatic stress disorder still remains, and she is at times delusional and makes a nuisance of herself. Then she disappears – not wanting to cause further problems for her successful son, she wishes to go back to Abashiri. Shujiro follows in an effort to reach out, mother and son setting out around the vast plains of Hokkaido on a journey into the past, opening the door to long-buried memories.
Departures director Yojiro Takita returns with a follow up piece also on family. Unlike the subtle Departures which explores family ties through the Japaneseritual of cleansing a dead body for the funeral, Sakura Guardian in the North comes off as an overripe melodrama that tries a bit too hard.
Set against the backdrop of wartime upheaval, Sakura Guardian in the North should have more than sufficient material for the director to explore in terms of how the difficulty of surviving in such trying times affect a mother and how she raises her two sons. But rather than simply exploring how the hardship of survival shapes the mother and impacts the family which she now heads because of the war, the movie stretches too far. It complicates things unnecessarily by making the mother, now in her twilight years (played commendably by Sayuri Yoshinaga), a victim trapped by her failed mental facilities. The device of having some scenes presented like a stage play, distances the viewer from the story, running counter to its objective of giving the viewer a peek into the mother’s thoughts and feelings. You feel like you are a mere bystander rather than someone who is actively involved and interested in the characters.
Unlike the touching Departures which draws the viewer in gradually without the viewer even realising how he or she has already become invested in the movie and its characters, Sakura Guardian in the North shamelessly attempts to use the theme of motherly self-sacrifice and relentless endurance in the face of never-ending suffering to extract tears from its viewers. Sakura Guardian in the North never passes up an opportunity to let the mother character sink into abysses of agonies and depths of despair (which leaves little wonder about why the mother goes half-mad in the movie).
Thankfully though, the able cast manages to somehow make the characters convincing despite the unconvincing overly-unfortunate times that they have had to go through. Masato Sakai portrays the flawed younger son who, despite being under tremendous social stresses, desires to do something for the mother who has cut him off and is now in dire straits. The sense that he is tightly wound due to the pressures in his life come through even when he smiles, a smile so brittle that it feels like he could snap it in an instant and let all the built-up tension out.
Yoshinaga shows her mettle and why she is a four-time Japan Academy Best Actress Award winner. She avoids falling into the trap of being overly dramatic as a mother who has been dealt possibly one of the worst lots in life. Instead, she is quietly affecting as the tenacious mother who would sacrifice everything for her children but is herself, slowly being eaten away emotionally at not being able to find closure with the disappearance of her husband.
Although somewhat too melodramatic with its thinly veiled attempts to get the viewer to cry, Sakura Guardian in the North builds up to a moving ending even as the viewer finds himself or herself connecting with the mother and her younger son on their journey together and in the process, realises the power of familial love.
(Saved primarily by its brilliant cast. Otherwise, this movie would have come across as a sappy, exploitative melodrama)
Review by Katrina Tee