If there is a meme running through the 14th Japanese Film Festival, and indeed throughout the history of Japanese cinema, it is the changing nature of family with each generation. Opening night film About Her Brother drew on the traditions of the great Ozu by touching on the impact of family throughout several generations, yet did so in a very casual and observational kind of way. Director Norihiro Koizumi, who got his start on the amnesiac-college-student-turned-masked-wrestler film Gachi Boy, takes a more direct examination of those generational differences, and produces one of the most beautiful and stunningly shot films to date.
FLOWERS (フラワーズ) follows the lives of six women across three generations, from 1936 through to 2009. In the 1930s, Rin (rising star Yu Aoi, About Her Brother) is having doubts about her arranged marriage. Rin does have three daughters eventually: Midori (Rena Tenanka, A Taste of Fish), a career minded woman in a man’s world, Kaoru (Yuko Takeuchi, Golden Slumber), who loses her husband in a tragic car accident. There is also the youngest daughter Sato (Yuki Nakama, Shinobi) who later gives birth to Kanna (Kyoko Suzuki, recently in a Japanese remake of Sideways) and Kei (Ryoko Hirosue, Departures, Villon’s Wife, Zero Focus). In our contemporary story, Kanna finds that she is also pregnant and is concerned over her ability to be a single parent.
More than anything else, FLOWERS is marvelous to look at with an aesthetic derived partly from Norihiro Koizumi’s advertising work, some of which earned him the Cannes Lions International Advertising Festival Grand Prix. seems to have deliberately picked women who appeared in cosmetic company Shiseido’s Tsubaki commercials, and the artificial look of the film does take a few moments to get used to. Indeed, it takes a few moments to get your breath back as the stunning cinematography from Taishi Hirokawa uses crisp black and white for the 1930s, hyper-realistic colours for the 1960s/1970s time period (with a look and attitude that mirrors The Mary Tyler Moore Show) and a stark and uncomplicated palette for contemporary setting. On a technical level, the film is a tour de force with costumes, set design, photography and makeup of the highest quality throughout. Yet Koizumi also uses the distinctive language and look of the last eight decades of film-making in Japan to convey the changing roles and emotions of his women, with each period completely mimicking the style of filmmaking at the time. In this way, the viewer is virtually transported to each generation, making the separation slightly painful as we slip into another generation. It also makes FLOWERS incredibly effective at relating its story of generational femininity to a broad audience.
Many may feel that film tries to bite off too much, with multiple storylines all leading to similar conclusions. Indeed, the appearance of a montage based around an Olivia Newton-John song from Xanadu sticks out like a sore thumb in this otherwise beautiful film. While this gives us a broad brushstroke of mothers and daughters dealing with the business of motherhood, Koizumi’s advertising background is evident: it is more about the look and feel of each period. FLOWERS highlights the beauty of each of these generations, and using some of the most beautiful Japanese actresses on the cinema scene doesn’t hurt this cause one iota.
FLOWERS is a celebration of life. One has to take it or leave it, and sacrifices sometimes have to be made in the creation of it. It would be wrong to simply take the surface proposition that the film appears to offer: that is, procreation is the solution to all of life’s problems. Rather, each of the women in the film learns to embrace their lot in life on their own terms, and despite the often male-dominated worlds they live in, each demonstrates incredible strength in doing so. For lovers of cinema of all eras, there is a great deal to be found in this wonderful piece that spans over 70 years of Japanese, and in turn, Japanese cinema history.
FLOWERS is playing at the 14th Japanese Film Festival nationally. It is due to play again at Melbourne on 2 December 2010. If there is any justice, this will be picked up for distribution as well.