I used to think that religion in Japan was for most a matter of custom, not belief. You clap your hands at the shrine because that’s what people do, not because you think the resident gods are actually listening.
But as Minoru Kurimura’s drama “Sakura, Futatabi no Kanako (Orpheus’ Lyre)” shows, it’s not so simple, especially when death arrives suddenly to a young couple living an ordinary middle-class life in today’s Tokyo. Rituals that may have once been pro forma suddenly acquire a new significance while ancient beliefs that are now less taught than transmitted like cultural DNA take on a new, personal meaning.
Based on a novel by Kiyomi Niitsu, the film begins with that most iconic of Japanese rituals: a school entrance ceremony, with cherry blossoms in full bloom serving as glorious symbols of renewal. Yoko (Ryoko Hirosue) and Nobuki (Goro Inagaki) have arrived with their daughter Kanako at her new kindergarten for the ceremony — when a moment of inattention leads to tragedy.
Driven toward suicide and madness by Kanako’s death, but narrowly spared both, Yoko encounters Masami (Mayuko Fukuda), a pregnant teenager also on the brink of despair. When Masami’s baby girl is born, Yoko becomes convinced that she is Kanako reincarnated. Meanwhile, Nobuki urges Yoko to accept the finality of their daughter’s death and bring another new life into the world, but she is not yet ready to let go and move on. The couple drifts apart, while Yoko’s certainty that Kanako has come back only deepens.
Given all the Hollywood films that draw on Christian beliefs about everything from angels to the afterlife, it shouldn’t be surprising for one from Japan to focus on reincarnation, a central tenet of Buddhism, as well as a belief held by many here who profess no formal religion at all. What is unusual is the way not only Yoko but the film itself regards reincarnation as a reality.
Many Japanese films feature scenes of mourning survivors speaking to departed loved ones at home altars or grave sites but leave open the question of whether anyone is actually listening. “Orpheus’ Lyre” is more upfront about its theology, though its story is not as straightforward as it initially seems.
This proreincarnation stance may strike the skeptical as alien or off-putting, but the film also accurately reflects the beliefs of many here, who may check the “no religion” box on surveys but behave otherwise when death intervenes in their lives. While telling Yoko that Kanako is “no longer in this world,” Nobuki faithfully carries out the traditional rituals and observances for the dead, more out of plainly stated conviction than a mere social reflex.
Kurimura, whose 2011 debut feature “Meshi to Otome (Food and the Maiden)” focused on food-related neuroses, films this story with nary a hint of tearjerking sentimentality. Instead he takes a restrained, distanced approach, supported by Mamoru Samuragoch’s solemn, classically themed score, as well as by tastefully desaturated images suggesting eternity (for example, flowing water) and transience (fluttering cherry blossoms).
Given his theme, this sober-sided treatment is certainly appropriate, but it also smooths over the couple’s darker feelings, beginning with Yoko’s immense, killing guilt and regret. In that way it’s closer to funeral rites that try to put a calming, dignified face on death than to the raw emotions of the mourning survivors.
Once a bubbly teen idol known for her hyper-caffeinated performances, Hirosue has since matured into an actress who can be transparent without being over-obvious, while suggesting a range of feeling with an economy of means. She shows us Yoko’s never-ending pain and stubborn hope more in her weary, ever-searching eyes than in manufactured tears. On reincarnation I’m agnostic, but in Hirosue I’ve become a believer.
Fun fact: Ryoko Hirosue featured in 2008′s “Okuribito (Departures)” as the wife of Masahiro Motoki’s lead character. Among the film’s more than 100 awards was a best foreign-language film Oscar.