Under the Cherry Tree (桜の樹の下) is the feature documentary debut of director Tanaka Kei, a work that follows the lives of the elderly residents of a public housing complex in Kawasaki. The movie had its premiere last October at the Yamagata International Documentary Film Festival (Perspective Japan) where I had the chance to see it.
From the opening scene the film reveals its touch, low-tech and anti-spectacular in style, with a pretty straightforward approach, even though there are some formal choices that tend to be elliptical, I’ll come back to it later. Through her camera Tanaka gives voice to the elderly living in the building, focusing especially on four of them whom, during the 92 minutes of the movie, we slowly get to know and attached to. They all tell stories of solitude, each of them of course has a diverse background and even comes from different areas of Japan. Recollecting their past and the reasons for their present condition, a life on the edge of poverty, is a sort of candid confession that each of them is not afraid to make in front of the camera. In the chatting with the director what strongly emerges is a sense of impending death, a common horizon that feels very near, and yet seems to be accepted and sometimes even anticipate as a sort of deliverance particularly from one elderly lady. Enveloped in their loneliness, the only sparse moments of comfort for these people are represented by the weekly meetings with the care staff or other various recreational activities organised in the neighborhood.
There’s a big cherry tree near the housing complex, often we see these old people taking a stroll, passing under it and stopping to contemplate its flowers, one of the few bursts of beauty coloring their lives and the visual element that gives the movie its title.
As gray as it might seem, the documentary is not only and always a bleak depiction of lives without hope, on the contrary and on a deeper level, is more an act of understanding and acceptance of what it means to become old in a society that doesn’t really know what to do with its old population. To lighten up the mood there are here and there some comic moments, especially when the two old ladies, one of them has also mental problems and lives in a flat piled with garbage, visit each other, chat and quarrel. Renouncing the classical narration in favor of intertitles and written texts to introduce the four protagonists is a perfect choice by the director, as a result the movie is smooth in its flow and doesn’t feel redundant or pathetic, gaining instead a matter-of-fact quality that is one of the best traits of the movie.
Under the Cherry Tree perfectly situates itself in a recent trend of Japanese documentary, a trend that has become almost a sub-genre, exploring and depicting the population ageing in Japan by focusing on personal lives of few individuals. A demographic trend that will dictate the political and economic decisions for years to come, Under the Cherry Tree goes together with Walking With my Mother, Everyday Alzheimer 1 and 2 as one of the best examples of this unavoidable turn that Japanese non-fiction and Japanese society in general is undertaking.