While Hitoshi Yazaki is not a well-known director – within Japan and outside Japan, he has already created a decent oeuvre. While he has been active from the 80’s, it is only since 2006 that he became truly active as a director, introducing Japanese audiences to his versions of various novels. Sakura, his latest, is not different in this respect, delivering an adaption of Kanako Nishi’s novel of the same name.
One day, Kaoru (Takumi Kitamura) decides to return to his parental home. His reasons to return are twofold: his desire to see his dog, Sakura, again, and to see his dad Akio (Masatoshi Nagase), who after leaving the family two years ago has returned home.
At the back of the house, in the garden, Kaoru meets his mother Tsubomi (Shinobu Terajima) and his sister Miki (Nana Komatsu). When his father returns with Sakura, he ignores his father and takes his beloved dog for a walk. But the father’s sudden disappearance (and reappearance) is not the only thing that has affected the family and its happiness. In the past, Hajime (Ryo Yoshizawa), the eldest son, was severely injured in a car accident.
With Sakura Yazaki present a slice of life narrative, sketching the ups and downs and the joys and the sorrows of the Hasegawa family. While Yazaki could have told this narrative in a chronological manner, he wisely chose to structure this family’s story in a more unusual manner. The strength of the narrative structure is that it is effective in keeping the spectator engaged throughout the narrative. By opening the narrative with an event in the present, i.e. the rather awkward family get-together, Yazaki ensures that a variety of questions are raised in the spectator’s mind, questions that can only receive an answer in the concatenation of past events that follow. It is, in fact, only by exploring the past of the family, that the present event, an event that opens and closes the narrative, can receive its full meaning.
Concerning the rather awkward family get-together that opens (and closes) the narrative, we can say that the father is staged as someone who, at least from the perspective of his children, has betrayed the family and seemingly disturbed its peaceful constellation and its imaginary family happiness. The mother, as is made evident by her comportment, does not only attempt to ensure that no confrontation happens between her children (i.e. Miki and Kaoru) and their father, but also forces the children to play their function in supporting the semblance of a happy family. In other words, the mother wants everyone to act as if nothing happened, as if the father never left the family. The atmosphere is nevertheless strained. One can really feel that nothing is like it was before.
The exploration of the family’s past serves two purposes. The first purpose is to show the spectator the basis of the family’s happiness. By sketching out the history of family traditions and showing how the past of the family (e.g. first date between parents, the birth of Miki, Hajime bringing his first girlfriend Yuko (Kaho Mizutani), … etc.) is narrativized, Yazaki is able to show the spectator the very coordinates upon which (the semblance of) their family happiness is built. As the focus in the first half of the narrative lies on demonstrating the dynamics of the family happiness, one should not expect any truly negative and disruptive events to be staged. Each moment featured in this heartwarming exploration plays its positive role in the familial history and its mythology.
The second purpose of this exploration is to underline the two moments that problematize (the semblance of) the family happiness of the Yamazaki’s. The first ‘crack’ in the semblance of family happiness or the first subtle derailment of the family’s relational dynamics appears around the around the time that Hajime introduces Yuko to his family. Due to the presence of Yuko, who is nothing other than a romantic rival, Miki is unable to interact with Hajime in the same manner as before. Yuko, by stealing Hajime from her, thwarts her romantic fantasy, a fantasy she can ‘enjoy’ by being near him. It is, in fact, this moment that underlines that the narrative has left its idealized framing of childhood and has transformed into framing the romantic struggles and the joys of the children’s lives as adolescents.
The second derailment, i.e. the car-incident that left Hajime half paralyzed, is not so much an event that derails the family functioning as such but an event that problematizes the position of Hajime within the family’s functioning. His struggle to accept his new state and re-assume a positive position within the family is, first and foremost, a struggle with his very ego. It is, as matter of fact, because his body and his mirror-image has radically changed that it has become impossible to continue living his life from the ego he has constructed for himself – an ego built on the meaning of the name Hajime – and the fantasies that radiate from this ego-position (Psycho-note 1). Can Hajime overcome the impact of this radical event and reformulate his ego into an ego that gives him a positive subjective position, a position where he can desire and fantasize from, or will the realization that the pursuit of his desired ideal-ego is now impossible lead him to act accordingly?
The composition of Sakura offers a straightforward blend between fixed shots and fluid moving shots or shaky moving shots. While this blend is pleasing, it is not always clear why, in some cases, Yazaki prefers fluid moving shots and, in other cases, shaky moving shots. One time, Yazaki allows himself a decorative escapade. This escapade concerns the visualization of Akio and Tsubomi’s first date. This sequence is shot like a still-film, with monochrome colours and intertitles for speech, and underlines how ‘ancient’ this event is for their children. While this decorative escapade is a pleasant moment, one other visual decoration is unnecessary and hurts the already established flow of the narrative. The decoration in question, concerns Yazaki’s use of freezing shots.
The use of the narrating voice fulfills two interrelated functions, a cinematographical one and a narrative one. At the cinematographical level, Kaoru’s narrating voice subtle dictates the flow of the cinematographical composition and, at the narrative level, the narrating voice reveals how he has narrativized the history of the family (e.g. first date between parents, the birth of Miki, … etc.).
There are three different colour-schemes in the narrative – a warm summery colour design for Kaoru’s memory, a natural colour-design for the past as such, and a normal colour-design for the present. The soft orange warmness by which Kaoru’s remembrances are framed beautifully show how idealized these moments have become from the viewpoint of his present. While the colour-design only implicitly underlines the idealization of these past events, the fact that these remembrances are idealized constructs is made explicit by his narrating voice: “Back then, we had everything we needed”. Even though the other flashbacks are framed with a normal colour-design, the fragments of the past taking place before the Hajime’s introduction of Yuko to his family further elaborate the ideal image of family happiness Kaoru has constructed in his mind. After this event, the flashbacks begin to focus on each child individually (Hajime, Kaoru, and Miki) and to deliver a more realistic portrait of their youthful life.
Sakura is a great narrative that does not only show that family happiness is but a semblance – behind the smiles hides pain and sadness – but also the very fact that the subject can only grasp his present subjective state by narrativizing (and, in many cases idealize) his past. What makes the narrative great is the fact that it avoids melodrama at all costs and let the emotions naturally flow from the performances as such (Acting-note 1).
Acting-note 1: The performance that impresses the most is Nana Komatsu’s performance.
Psycho-note 1: With mirror-image, we mean two things: the actual image in the mirror (e.g. Hajime’s reaction when he sees himself in the mirror) as well as the image the comportment of others reflects back to us (e.g. the young children that, upon seeing Hajime, run away).