When Katsumi Sakaguchi quit working as a documentary filmmaker in the spring 2008 to look after his mother Suchie, he thought he was doing the right thing. Then 78, Suchie was suffering from what Sakaguchi describes as “mental confusion” following the death of her daughter from cancer two years earlier and the recent hospitalization of her husband, who later died of pneumonia.
“I had to choose between my work and my mother, so, of course, I chose my mother ,” says the veteran documentarian, whose film “Hoyo” (“Walking with My Mother”), about his subsequent four years of caring for Suchie, premiered at last year’s Tokyo International Film Festival.
“She was the one who bore and raised me. I felt I had to do it,” he says.
But after moving back to his parents’ house in Saitama Prefecture, Sakaguchi soon found himself overwhelmed. Just how much so is made clear by the shocking scenes that begin the film, with the distraught Suchie in the grip of a full-blown panic attack, convinced she is about to die.
“It was really tough for me to see that,” Sakaguchi says. “She was so strong when she was younger — the change was very sudden.”
Faced with her incessant demands for attention, Sakaguchi began to break down himself.
“All I could see of my future was this life, alone with my mother — it was like gazing into a black hole,” he says.
Instead of succumbing to his frustration and anger (“I felt like hitting her,” he says), he picked up a camera and began filming.
“It gave me the distance I needed — I could see her more objectively,” he explains. “The camera saved me.”
But Sakaguchi “wasn’t thinking (of making a film) at all when I started,” he says. As he kept shooting everything from Suchie’s night terrors to her visits to a local day care center for the elderly (for which she bravely wore a smiling face), he inadvertently found a story all too common in today’s urbanized Japan, with its small nuclear families and weak community ties.
“She was among the first wave of Japanese who found themselves alone after their kids had left and their spouse has died,” he says. “The support network that they might once have had isn’t there any more. And in 10 years, when the baby boomers hit their 70s, the problem is going to be a lot worse.”
Too often this story has an unhappy ending, with the lonely senior slipping — as Suchie was — into depression and ill health.
“She was taking tranquilizers to feel better, but she would take too many pills at once and feel worse as a result,” Sakaguchi says. “It was a downward spiral.”
What pulled her out of this spiral — and what makes “Walking with My Mother” a surprisingly positive and even inspirational experience — is her return to Tanegashima, the island off Kagoshima Prefecture’s southern coast where she was raised and where many members of her family still live. Though she had not been back in 38 years, Suchie found a warm welcome, especially from her younger sister Mariko, with whom she had been the closest among her seven siblings. On camera, Mariko impresses as a funny, energetic, caring fount of common sense. After feeding her sister cake and making her smile, Mariko tells her that “on Tanegashima, you’ll eat well, meet people and laugh.”
That turns out to be a simple-but-effective general prescription for Suchie’s recovery, though she has many more ups and downs. By the film’s end the younger Suchie we see in family photographs, looking straight and fearlessly into the lens, has begun to return.
“It’s a kind of miracle,” Sakaguchi says. “She was extremely lucky.”
Sakaguchi himself feels “very fortunate” to have “walked” with his mother during the four years of filming. The experience taught him “the importance of having friends and family,” he says.
“I’m still unmarried — like 40 percent of all Japanese — but now I want to find a wife,” he adds with a laugh. “I’m hoping it’s not too late.”
His concern, however, is that many Japanese in Tokyo and elsewhere who moved to the big city either individually or with their families to take part in the postwar economic boom are now stranded as they become older and more isolated.
“They have no furusato (hometown or native place) to return to and no one around them to support them,” he says. “It’s a major social problem.”
He believes, though, that it’s possible to find your own furusato, even in the city.
“You have to realize that you can’t be alone in this world — that you need others to live,” he says.
It’s now two years after he stopped filming and Suchie, he says, is still doing well.
“She was embarrassed at first that I was doing this. Her reaction was ‘Who would want to see a film about me?’ ” he says. But, for Sakiguchi, her very ordinariness makes it easier for the Japanese audience to relate.
“What she experienced — the war, the postwar boom — is what many Japanese experienced. If she had been a Nobel Prize winner, that wouldn’t have been the case.”
How does she feel about the film now? “She feels it was something she was meant to do,” Sakaguchi says.
“She would be happy if it gives people a bit of strength.”
All screenings at Theater Image Forum in Tokyo will be subtitled in English. For more information, visit www.houyomovie.com