Raised on a small farm in Southern Ohio, my grandfather hunted and grew much of the food we ate at the enormous Sunday dinners my grandmother prepared, from tasty quail and rabbit to fresh sweet corn and tomatoes. The piece de resistance was often apple pie, made from fruit harvested from backyard trees. My grandmother was also a subscriber to a magazine called “Prevention” that advocated organic food — a radical idea in the United States in the 1950s.
So the story of Yoshihiro Nakamura’s “Kiseki no Ringo (Miracle Apples),” based on the decadelong quest of Aomori farmer Akinori Kimura to grow apples without chemical fertilizers and pesticides, had a certain familiarity to me. Even the program’s photo of the still-spry Kimura, wearing wire-rim glasses and a big toothless grin, reminded me of Grandpa, though Kimura is exactly my age, to the month (he’s 63). It is also a testimony to the harshness of his struggle, as well as to his ultimate success.
Inspired by a 2007 NHK documentary on Kimura and a 2008 biography by Takuji Ishikawa, Nakamura and scriptwriter Tomoko Yoshida have made a film that faithfully traces the outlines of Kimura’s “lost decade,” with fictional embellishments. But to fans of such earlier Nakamura films as “Fish Story” (2009) and “Golden Slumber” (2010), with their intriguing “what if” premises, cleverly complexifying narratives and brilliant tie-it-all-together climaxes, “Miracle Apples” will probably be a big, puzzling letdown.
Starring Sadao Abe as Kimura and TV-drama queen Miho Kanno as his ever-patient wife Mieko, the film is a full-throttle heartwarmer and tearjerker aimed straight at the same mass audience that made the TV show a hit and the book a best-seller. Has Nakamura, who has gone back and forth between commercial films and more personal projects for most of his career, sold out completely?
The man himself clearly doesn’t think so: When I spoke to him at the Udine Far East Film Festival, where his quirky drama “Minasan, Sayonara (See You Tomorrow, Everyone)” had its international festival premiere, he enthusiastically described “Miracle Apples” as a new direction. “It’s a human drama of a type I’ve never done before,” he said. “It’s completely unironic!” He’s right on both counts, unfortunately.
But Kimura’s story is still instructive and even inspiring, if you can get past the constant hyping of the man’s many setbacks into turbulent, at times farcical, drama. I could, barely, though I may have been helped by the memory of Grandpa in his sunbaked cornfield looking like the happiest man in the world, even with the sweat pouring down.
We first see Kimura as boy in rural Aomori in the 1950s. Fascinated with anything mechanical, he compulsively disassembles stuff to see how it works, including the home TV set. His fiddling with everything from a motorcycle engine to amps for an amateur rock band inevitably ends in comic disaster, however.
As a young man he escapes the family farm for a company job in the city, but is soon drawn back by his parents’ need for an heir, after his older brother declines that honor. The brother later reconsiders, however, while Kimura decides to marry the sweet-tempered Mieko, whom he has known since boyhood, and grow apples with her and her gruff if kindly father Seiji (Tsutomu Yamazaki) in the family orchard.
But Mieko, Kimura soon learns, is highly allergic to the chemicals considered essential to apple growing. Seeking to ease her distress, he stumbles across a book about organic farming and begins to devour its precepts, though he has no idea if they will work with apples. Ever the tinkerer, he begins experimenting with various natural substances to use in place of commercial pesticides and fertilizers and has some initial success — but Mother Nature, in the form of tree diseases and hungry insects, soon reasserts herself with a vengeance.
Rather than admit defeat, however, Kimura presses on, year after year, as three daughters are born and the family finances dwindle to nothing. Seiji, who reminisces about growing food minus chemical assistance in the jungle during the war, supports him, as does Mieko, but nearly everyone else around him, including his own parents, regard him as a dangerous disturber of the local wa (harmony) and he finds himself an outcast.
Abe, who has made a specialty of outsider striver roles — such as his scam artist in Miwa Nishikawa’s “Yume Uru Futari (Dreams for Sale)” — plays Kimura as a bull-headed but soft-hearted workaholic familiar from many another Japanese movie, feel-good or otherwise. The real Kimura, at least from Ishikawa’s biography (with an English translation available free online), strikes me as more interestingly smart and eccentric, with a Zen-like devotion to his calling.
It’s one worth learning more about, given the uncertain safety of our food supply. Kimura’s apples alone may not save the planet, but his hard-won lessons may help keep it and its human inhabitants healthier longer. As well as enjoying their made-from-scratch apple pies.
Fun fact: Yoko Ono underwrote the English translation of Takuji Ishikawa’s “Miracle Apples” after picking up and devouring the Japanese original at the JAL lounge at Narita Airport.