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Sunday, July 13, 2014

Review of "Ieji" 家路 (The road back home)

Did any reader of this blog catch this movie at the National Museum's Gallery Theatre on Friday evening (11th July)? Other than "Mogura no Uta" which was sold out, "Ieji" was the other film which also had a full house but too bad it was shown on the second last day of the Japanese Film Festival thus it did not get a second screening like "Mogura no Uta". As I've not watched "Mogura no Uta", I can't really compare it with "Ieji" but I can at least say that the latter has its own merits too and deserves a second screening. Then again, if it is to be released in a commercial cinema, chances are it might not do very well in terms of box office takings because the pacing is rather slow and the mood of this movie is quite sombre most of the time. For people who prefer watching blockbusters or movies with a lighter atmosphere, "Ieji" might not be their cup of tea. As such, it's probably ideal for the film to make its debut in Singapore through a film festival than a commercial release.

Before I share my thoughts about this movie, I will describe the story first. As usual, if you haven't watched this and would prefer not to read the spoilers, please skip this review.

At the centre of this story is the Sawada family which is struggling to cope with the aftermath of the March 11 earthquake and tsunami crisis after the area where their family home and land are located in is declared as inhabitable due to the high radiation levels. As a result, the eldest son Soichi has to bring his wife Misa, daughter Naho and his stepmother Tomiko to live in a temporary shelter which is too cramped for the four of them.

Soichi who no longer can work as a farmer as a result of the crisis, keeps going to the police station to seek compensation from the authorities for contaminating his land and making it impossible for him to go home even though the people around him think that it's wiser for him to just take the compensation and make a fresh start elsewhere. This makes him frustrated as to why the people around him don't seem to understand what he's thinking. In addition, Misa who works in the health delivery service (i.e. providing sex services to clients at places such as love hotels or their homes) is a constant source of worry for Soichi who resorts to trailing her and even buying her services at times just to stop her from meeting her clients. Misa herself doesn't think that she is doing anything shameful as long as the money allows her family to survive and keeps reassuring Soichi that she won't stray or leave him for someone else. Even though Misa tries to persuade Soichi to move out of Fukushima so that they can make a fresh start, Soichi is reluctant to do so and gives all sorts of reasons to explain why he would not do so.

At the same time, Tomiko who is living with Soichi's family, is also struggling to adapt to live in the temporary shelter. As she can't be a farmer anymore unlike when they were still living in the family home, she hopes to make herself useful in the household so that she doesn't pose as a burden to her stepson who she knows feels a certain emotional barrier towards her. In the meantime, Tomiko is still pining for her own son Jiro who left home close to 20 years ago due to an incident which she had no control over and has no news of him to date but keeps this thought deep within her. As Tomiko starts to show signs of becoming senile, this makes Jiro and Misa wonder what they can do about Tomiko as they can't just dump her behind and move elsewhere nor do they have any means of helping her to find Jiro and reuniting them.

Jiro who left home many years ago, returns to his family home unannounced and begins working on the land to prepare for the planting of rice. He accidentally meets his ex-classmate Kitamura and gets reminded of his past i.e. how smart he was in Kitamura's eyes and how his casual remarks back then came eerily true during the March 11 crisis. At that time, there was a discussion during class when the students were asked on what could be done to make their hometown a better place to live in. The young Jiro at that time simply said that as long as there were no more human beings around, the place would be a good one to live in and this remark caused everyone to be at a loss for words. Jiro doesn't remember much of his past in his hometown as if he deliberately tried to erase it from his memory when he left home. Even when told by the police and persuaded by his friend that his family home is inhabitable, Jiro still refuses to leave. It is only when Soichi is informed about Jiro's return that the latter finally budges and goes to meet his mother at the temporary shelter.

When Jiro goes to meet Tomiko, she is visibly pleased to see him and seems to remember everything about her son and the farming workflow which makes Jiro and Soichi wonder if she is indeed becoming senile. It is also revealed later when Jiro and Soichi have a heart-to-heart talk that Jiro had left home because of Soichi's actions.

Back then, the brothers' father Senzo was running for election in the local town council. In a bid to please his father and hurt the opposition candidate, Soichi resorted to draining the water from the rice plantations of the opposition candidate. Even though Senzo was well aware that this was Soichi's doing and he thought very highly of Jiro because he was smart and a talented farmer, Senzo wanted to protect Soichi's reputation and made Jiro become the scapegoat. As a result of this saga, Jiro left home and swore never to return again. In actual fact, before this episode, Jiro was already not keen on staying in his hometown as he felt stifled living here with the constant attention around him due to his father's status. However, after the tsunami crisis, he suddenly felt as if the mountains and animals in his hometown were calling for him to return since nobody is living here anymore so he came back because he was finally feeling homesick. All along, Soichi had felt guilty about Jiro's departure from home but he was helpless to do anything then. It was only when the crisis struck and he had to leave the family home that he realised again that it would have been better if Jiro was around but he had no way of finding his younger brother and wondered if he was dead.

Jiro suggests to Soichi that he wants to bring Tomiko back to their family home to live which is met with some apprehension from the latter. However, seeing that Tomiko would be happiest to return to farming and staying with Jiro, Soichi agrees to the idea. Upon sending Jiro and Tomiko off, Soichi finally makes up his mind to start over at another place by buying another piece of land to do farming.

Understandably, this is a rather emotional film with two main topics i.e. the Sawada family struggling to make a fresh start despite it being a few years after the tsunami crisis and trying to patch things up after what happened many years ago as well as show the current state of Fukushima and bringing it to life what that crisis had meant to the people who originally lived there.

In the case of the Sawada family, Soichi was still bogged down by the bitterness of losing everything overnight and he was powerless against preventing it from happening. He could have made a fresh start by accepting the compensation and moving elsewhere but he gave excuses that he didn't want to be ostracised or cause his daughter to be unable to get married in future just because they are from Fukushima. In actual fact, he still wanted to go back to how things were before the crisis but deep down, he knows that it wasn't going to be that way. He was also tormented by the fact that his wife Misa had to take on such a job because he couldn't bring in any income to support the family and yet he still didn't want to back down. It did feel like Misa was quite exasperated by Soichi's stubbornness but she knew that she couldn't make him change his mind. Perhaps deep down, Soichi's insistence stemmed from the fact that he was the reason why Jiro had to leave home so he couldn't forgive himself for failing to protect what Jiro might have been able to. Then again, the crisis was something nobody could have foreseen which added on to the helplessness that Soichi felt. He could have put his past behind him but without knowing whether Jiro was still alive or seeking his forgiveness for what happened in the past, Soichi couldn't move on.

Meanwhile, although Jiro appeared to bear no ill will towards his brother for what happened, he could have resented the manner he had to leave due to no mistake of his. It might have been better if he had chosen to leave at a time he wished to. When Tomiko asked him in the past about how he felt about their hometown, Jiro clearly expressed his dislike for the place but it felt to me as if he didn't like the people there rather than hate the place itself. His father's political pursuits could have resulted in why Jiro didn't like that kind of unwanted attention. Besides, due to Tomiko being the second wife of Senzo, Jiro's status as the second son was somewhat not a very comfortable one for him. Although he was clearly more suitable than Soichi as the heir of the family, the birth order issue came into play. On the other hand, when you come to think of it, Jiro could have felt that being the scapegoat for Soichi was the perfect opportunity to leave his hometown so that's why he didn't seem to react too negatively to the idea when Senzo explained why he had to protect Soichi. However, the harsh reality of being thrown into the outside world and being unable to lead a better life than he did in his hometown was probably what made Jiro jaded and so weary of life that he came home despite the threat of radiation and having to bear with the loneliness of living alone.

As for Tomiko's situation, it was a reflection of how the elderly feel about their lives in their twilight years. The problem between Tomiko and Soichi was that they are not related by blood. Even though Soichi was not really nasty to Tomiko, there was an invisible wall between them. When Tomiko was having problems using the key to open the door, Soichi simply walked away because he thought this was better than flaring up at Tomiko. However, from Tomiko's point of view, Soichi holding back his frustration only made her feel more strongly that she was a nuisance and burden to him. There was no way Tomiko could share her worries with anyone and she could not see her own son Jiro. The double whammy of having to adjust to new surroundings and worry about her existence being a problem to her stepson could be what led to her developing symptoms of becoming senile. On the other hand, her interaction with Jiro showed that she was pretty much at ease with him and could even joke at times. Of course, it helped that she was back in the comfort of the family home but Jiro's presence was probably the best medicine for Tomiko after all.

Besides the very engaging story about the Sawada family, another thing which left a strong impression on me was the scenery of Fukushima featured extensively in the film as this movie was filmed entirely there. What struck me was the wilderness and feeling of solitude from a very beautiful landscape. As per Senzo's words in his election speech, Fukushima has everything i.e. mountains and water and they produced the energy for Tokyo to prosper over the years (the power stations were located there but the electricity used mainly in the capital city). It's such a beautiful place when you look at the scenery in the film without knowing about what happened but it's quite painful to see this when the realisation that people may never be able to return to those areas affected by high radiation for decades. It also reflects the fact that due to the crisis, people had to leave their homes in a hurry and everything seemed to have been frozen as it was on 11 March 2011. You would have thought that things would be restored to normal by now but there are still many places which are like how it was featured in this movie i.e. nothing has really changed except the passage of time. The empty houses, shops, schools etc all bear testimony to the fact that so many people have had their lives interrupted drastically and suddenly as a result of this catastrophic crisis. When home is no longer as it was or ceases to exist, how will people react? I think this movie attempts to address this question but doesn't really give a definite answer in the end as seen from the paths chosen by the Sawada brothers. Jiro chose to go back to the tainted homeland while Soichi moved on to find a new home. There is no correct or perfect answer as their choices were prompted by their own circumstances and what they felt was best for themselves.

With regard to the acting, I must say that I enjoyed the performances of the main cast very thoroughly. Matsuyama Kenichi did very well as the jaded Jiro who had conflicted feelings about his homeland and finally returned because there was nobody around. When you come to think of it, it's very sad because he had to leave due to circumstances beyond his control and he came back when nobody didn't want to stay and couldn't stay. It seemed to suggest that he was destined for a life of solitude but thankfully, it was good that Jiro could reunite with Tomiko and stay in their homeland. Despite being a young actor, Matsuyama never fails to amaze me with his ability to show a variety of emotions which is mature beyond his actual age. I also liked his interaction with Uchino Seiyo who played Soichi as they had their heart-to-heart talk and resolved the many years of misunderstanding between them.

Uchino nailed it as the frustrated and trapped Soichi who knew that he had to do something about his situation but he couldn't do anything about his anger and frustration. It was only till Jiro's return that he sort of saw the light and decided to move on. Imagine if he had never met Jiro again, things would have remained the same for him until the day things got to the point of no return or when he finally gets the idea that he can't be trapped in his old thinking anymore. The thing is, the latter outcome might not have materialised after all if Jiro did not come back. It was annoying to see someone like Soichi keep whining about the situation but not doing anything to change it but when you look at it from another perspective, his desire to be accepted by his father and to protect what his family had was his duty as the eldest son and he was seriously bogged down by this sense of responsibility until he could not see for himself what was best for him and his family. In this way, it's hard to blame Soichi for being so stubborn about resisting change.

Tanaka Yuko, being the veteran in the cast, had limited scenes actually but in the short time she appeared, she breathed life into the character of Tomiko and showed how a traditional woman like her was powerless to go against her husband when he sent her only son away for a ridiculous reason  and how she had to depend on her stepson and be wary of stepping on his toes because she could not depend on Jiro. I thought she gave the character a lot of depth and provided the viewers with some much needed humour when Tomiko could answer some questions logically but her memory was stuck in the days before Jiro left home. Likewise, Ando Sakura did not have a very meaty role but her gusty portrayal of Misa who stood up to the challenge of supporting her family while her husband was still unable to accept reality was really commendable. There were two lines from her which I really liked and they showed the strong and logical mind of Misa i.e. when she refused to feel ashamed of her job because that helped her put food on the table and how she refused to feel inadequate or inferior to others just because she is from Fukushima. The people of Fukushima didn't cause the crisis anyway so why should they be fearful of other people looking at them differently just because of their origin? I thought these two lines were really full of impact and very memorable. In addition, I really liked her interaction with her mother-in-law Tomiko because they seemed to get along really well and it looked like Tomiko could afford to breathe a bit easier in front of Soichi when Misa was around.

In conclusion, I think that this is a very good film worth recommending to everyone but the pacing can get a  bit slow at times even though it's largely bearable. The message of family relationships coupled with the sorrow of not being able to return to your homeland or it being different from the place will probably strike a chord with many people.

And my ratings for this movie...

Story: 9 out of 10 (Very nicely-crafted story which had well-developed characters with a lot of depth. However, it could be better if the pacing was not dragged down with extensively long scenes of Fukushima's scenery. It might have been better to insert the scenery scenes at more regular intervals than to do it once in a long while and drag it on for too long each time.)

Acting: 9.5 out of 10 (Nothing much to pick fault with)

Theme song/BGM: 7 out of 10 (The BGM was largely on the slow side and had a tinge of sadness most of the time but nothing really stood out.)

Visual effects / Scenery: 8.5 out 10 (A great and realistic way to see Fukushima beyond the scenes from news reports and how time has stood still in those radiation-tainted towns. Can be a bit too sad to handle at times though)

Teamwork / Chemistry: 9 out of 10 (I liked the chemistry between the main cast members a lot and it was especially good that this was not restricted to just one or two pairs of characters)

Total: 43 out of 50

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