The moments of searing poignancy in Nagasaki: Memories of My Son unfortunately accentuate what’s missing from most of the overlong film, a story of mourning and survivor’s guilt in the years after the title city’s devastating bombing. Antiwar drama, family saga and semi-comic magic-realist ghost story make for an ungainly mix in Japan’s submission for the foreign-language Oscar race.
With 85 years to his name and just as many features to his credit, filmmaker Yoji Yamada brings a measured approach to the narrative that’s undercut by his tendency to spell out every emotional point. The movie’s old-fashioned transparency might entrance some viewers, but it isn’t likely to translate into serious art-house action.
A powerful opening sequence sets hopes high, though. It begins in the cockpit of the B-29 carrying the plutonium bomb that the U.S. military codenamed Fat Man. From there, the director moves to the simple, comfortable Nagasaki home of widowed midwife Nobuko (Sayuri Yoshinaga) and her spirited medical student son, Koji (Kazunari Ninomiya). Their hillside neighborhood turns out to be a pocket of tranquility in a murderous world.
A bravura series of scenes follow Koji on a crowded streetcar to the university lecture hall where the subject is the human heart. With haunting poetic shorthand, Yamada, cinematographer Masashi Chikamori and sound designer Kazumi Kishida convey Koji’s final breaths: His hands ready his notebook and fountain pen, an inhuman sound pierces the air, an ink bottle melts, and all is wind-torn chaos.
In a delicately played three-character scene toward the end of the film, the brief, nearly wordless appearance of a wounded veteran (Tadanobu Asano) brings together the story’s themes potently — so potently that it’s more than a letdown when Yamada and his screenwriting partner, Emiko Hiramatsu, drag things out for an additional 15 mawkish minutes.
Between the strong opening and stirring climax, Nagasaki is two hours of largely repetitive, static storytelling, set three years after the bombing. Much of it unfolds as a two-hander between Nobuko and Koji. He suddenly appears to his mother (and to children) just as she’s ready to let go of her anguished hope that he somehow survived.
Their interactions often have the feel of a mild-mannered sitcom. “Of course I’m not well!” he responds laughingly to her question. “I’m dead.” Yet eventually, as Koji clings to the idea that he’s the only one for his fiancée, Machiko (Haru Kuroki), Nobuko needs to remind him that he’s no longer of this world. “Please think hard about that,” she cautions — advice that Yamada and Hiramatsu might have heeded.
The conceit of Koji’s ghostly visitation wears thin — although his ability to sneak into cinemas is a sweet bit of movie love, as well as the opportunity for a pained reminder of the dichotomy of creativity and destruction. He and his mother reminisce, at length and to diminishing returns. The anecdotes are sometimes depicted in addition to being described, the doubled effort rarely making these scenes from the past compelling. More effective is Nobuko’s discerning lament over the difference between destiny and the preventable tragedy that was “planned and executed by humans.”
Koji, who tends to literally fade away when his feelings are hurt or sadness overtakes him, is variously tender, scolding, peevish and, concerning Machiko, jealous and possessive. She’s a kindhearted schoolteacher who helps the older woman tend to Koji’s empty grave, and who swears that she’ll honor her love for him forever. The interdependence of the two women, in their shared and sensitively portrayed grief, forms the most complex thread of the story. Nobuko tries to convince not just Koji but herself that any new love for Machiko, with a flesh-and-blood person, would not be tantamount to betrayal. The women share the film’s emotional high point with Kuroda, Asano’s grievously injured soldier.
Just as the movie’s idea of the afterlife has a flat literalness — culminating in the vision of a heavenly Christian choir — the quotidian details accrue in a way that’s not so much deliberate or layered as belabored. Kenichi Kato injects welcome irreverence and energy, however broad, as the black marketeer who sells Nobuko such exotic wares as American peanut butter and scented soaps, and who clearly harbors feelings for her.
The film’s surface restraint frequently gives way to explicit exposition, and its visual fluency can lapse into the clunky horror of a nightmare sequence or the stilted fantasy of Koji conducting his beloved Mendelssohn. The original score by veteran composer Ryuichi Sakamoto embraces an old-fashioned, melodic romanticism but also offers spare, unnerving strains. It’s the kind of seamless commentary that the movie itself achieves only occasionally.
Cast: Sayuri Yoshinaga, Kazunari Ninomiya, Haru Kuroki, Tadanobu Asano, Kenichi Kato
Director: Yoji Yamada
Screenwriters: Yoji Yamada, Emiko Hiramatsu
Producer: Nozomu Enoki
Executive producer: Junichi Sakomoto
Director of photography: Masashi Chikamori
Art director: Mitsuo Degawa
Editor: Iwao Ishii
Composer: Ryuichi Sakamoto
Sales: Shochiku International