Born in 1926 in Dalian, China, when the area was still under Japanese occupation, Haneda Sumiko later moved to Japan and eventually joined the Iwanami Productions, established in 1950), a company that would play a big part in the development of Japanese documentary in the postwar years. Within Iwanami, after working as an assistant director in some PR films, she had his debut behind the camera in 1957 with Women’s College in the Village (村の婦人学級), a 31 year-old woman directing a movie at the end of the 1950s, in a very strongly male-centered world like the Japanese cinema industry, must have been, and was, something really exceptional.
In 1981 Haneda left Iwanami Productions to become a freelance filmmaker and from that moment on she made many non-fiction films and exploring a wide and diverse range of themes, most of these works were produced by Jiyū Kobo.
The Cherry Tree with Gray Blossoms 「薄墨の桜」is a short and poetic documentary, a sort of visual poem that was completed in 1977, but a project Haneda pursued and had in mind for a long time. Shot in a small valley in Gifu prefecture, the movie is a reflection on the mortality and ephemerality of all things disguised as a documentary about a 1300-year-old cherry tree. Haneda and her cameraman follow the seasonal changes in and around this ancient tree, the festivals, the life of the small communities in the surrounding areas, the Spring and the coming of the inevitable Winter. The Cherry Tree with Gray Blossoms is also a grieving process for her sister’s death, a personal way for Haneda to deal with the devastating pain of losing her own sister, symbolically represented on screen by a girl who appears several times like a phantasmic presence, mostly at the beginning and at the end of the movie.
As we can see from the stills below, taken from the last part of the film – a river flowing, small wild flowers and weeds, a cemetery, a girl sighing and, after a couple of close-up facing the camera, going away – Haneda is exploring visually and with poetic touch, universal themes such as mortality, absence and the evanescence of life. What is also significant in the film is that it’s punctuated in its more lyrical moments, like the one just described, by guitar arpeggios played by Iwasaki Mitsuharu, a musical theme that magnifies the fleeting essence of life embodied in the film.