Grief doesn’t have a sell-by date, not really. Decades after a loss, the absence is still felt, the memories remain. And how much worse if the death was sudden and accidental? How can you ever forget — or forgive those who were to blame?
That is the question posed by Atsushi Funahashi’s “Sakura Namiki no Mankai no Shita ni (Cold Bloom),” which was selected for this year’s Berlin International Film Festival’s Forum section, Funahashi’s fourth film to screen at one of the world’s Big Three festivals — and the friendliest to his type of dark, serious art film.
Based on Funahashi’s original script, “Cold Bloom” is set in Hitachi, a city on the coast of Ibaraki Prefecture that suffered costly damage from the March 11, 2011 earthquake and tsunami not widely reported in the national media. It is also famous for the gorgeous cherry trees that feature so prominently in the film (as well as in the title).
The contrasts of natural beauty and destruction (though not to the extent visited on neighboring Fukushima Prefecture) are also apt metaphors for the film’s story of tragedy striking in the midst of happiness — and love blooming in the most improbable of circumstances.
Fans of Mikio Naruse will immediately see the resemblance to his final masterpiece “Midaregumo (Scattered Clouds)” from 1967, though “Cold Bloom” is simpler in structure and less varied in tone. It also attempts the sort of social commentary that Naruse typically avoided, though the problem it addresses, of small manufacturers scraping by as their old-line industries decline, is hardly limited to Hitachi or the present era.
As the story begins, Shiori Sasho (Asami Usuda) and her husband Kenji (Yo Takahashi) are living in newly wedded bliss, while the small metal-stamping shop they both work for has received a big contract through Kenji’s efforts. Then it all goes wrong when he is killed in an accident at the contractor’s, his family chisels her out of compensation money and the contractor pulls out of the deal, leaving the shop hanging on by a thread.
To Shiori, however, nothing matters but her loss, which her mind and heart refuse to accept as final. She can still see Kenji’s form and feel his presence, in eerie, dreamlike scenes shot on a desolate beach by a roiling sea.
When Shiori returns to work she encounters Takumi (Takahiro Miura), the new hire who was responsible for the fatal accident — and is now treated as a pariah by others in the shop. Takumi, however, not only stubbornly refuses to quit, but is determined to apologize and make amends to Shiori, despite her enraged rejections.
Over the months that follow, as Shiori learns more about what happened that fateful day and observes Takumi’s quiet diligence and competence in helping their short-fused boss (Taro Suwa) struggle back to solvency, her feelings toward him change from white-hot rage to something like acceptance. Then one day, Takumi tells her he is leaving town — and she realizes that she doesn’t want him to go.
As Shiori, Usuda looks too much the pillowy-lipped starlet to be credible as a shop hand who spends her days in a glorified shed that looks time warped from Naruse’s day. But she also expresses Shiori’s devastation and anger with a conviction than seems to come from a killing wound inside. This performance is narrow in range, but is also true to the experience of deep mourning, with its feeling of being trapped under dark, rainy clouds forever.
Playing Takumi, Miura isn’t required to do much more than look sincere in everything from regret to love, which he does to perfection. He has the aura of male stars from the 1960s, such as Nikkatsu action stalwart Tetsuya Watari and Yuzo Kayama of “Scattered Clouds,” who melted female hearts with their manly good looks, while radiating an unassuming integrity that also appealed to men.
The film itself is a throwback, with its classical Japanese humanism that may well strike younger audiences, local and foreign, as gloomy and harsh. But Funahashi, who did extensive research in Ibaraki for the film, knows whereof he speaks in depicting the plight of shops like Shiori and Takumi’s. Their work is not fashionable or sexy, but is still needed and is still done with pride.
So more power to them — though it wouldn’t be strange if festivalgoers who wandered blind into the film’s Berlin screening assumed that, cherry blossoms aside, it was set in industrialized China.
Fun fact: After university, Atsushi Funahashi went to New York in 1997 to study directing at the School of Visual Arts. During his 10-year stay he became one of the few Japanese filmmakers to master English.