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Doesn’t every kid imagine being lost in the woods?

The mental outcome, of course, is always positive as you follow the first stream you find back to civilization and safety. But in reality, a little disorientation can be a scary thing, as I learned in my boyhood explorations of the Western Pennsylvania woods. What if you wander about in a circle, as hunger and thirst do their slow, deadly work?

Such is the dilemma faced by the seven heroines of Shuichi Okita’s “Taki wo Mi ni Iku (Ecotherapy Getaway Holiday),” all of whom are over 40 and none of whom were expecting anything more than a pleasant hike to a lovely waterfall. Then their pudgy, nervous guide (Daisuke Kuroda) does a disappearing act and they are left to their own devices.

Taki wo Mi ni Iku (Ecotherapy Getaway Holiday)
Rating
Director Shuichi Okita
Run Time 88 minutes
Language Japanese
Opens Nov. 22

This may sound like a setup for a comedy of middle-aged errors and terrors, but those who have seen Okita’s previous films, including “Kitsutsuki to Ame (The Woodsman and the Rain)” and “Yokomichi Yonosuke (A Story of Yonosuke),” are aware his approach is more character- than gag-driven; more about human possibilities than plot devices. He also knows, more than many of his comedy-making peers, how to time a joke and tell a story. However, there’s always something sharply observed, if not immediately obvious, bubbling beneath the pleasantly entertaining surface, which can draw tears as well as laughs.

“Ecotherapy Getaway Holiday” is a smaller-scale film compared with Okita’s more ambitious works — “A Story of Yonosuke” was a three-hour epic that delved deep into the meaning of its title hero’s short but eventful life. At the same time, “Ecotherapy” is another of his experiments in form.

Cast from an audition open to amateurs and based on Okita’s own script, the film is somewhat like a reality show, with the lost-in-the-woods situation used to bring out each participant’s true personality and amusing foibles. It does, however, have the shape and purpose of a real movie, not a shot-on-the-fly stunt.

When the guide doesn’t return, the women try to call him on their cellphones, but they have no reception. Finally, four set off in search of him, while the other three wait behind.

At first, the two groups plan to contact each other with a whistle, but Tamaru (Kumiko Kawada), a former opera singer who is one of the searchers, has a better idea: her own big, melodious voice. Another search-party member, the earnest amateur photographer Misumi (Michiko Watanabe), carefully drops corn chip snacks on the trail so they can find their way back.

Meanwhile, the three who have remained behind begin to open up to each other and reveal hitherto hidden talents. The shy Junko (Haruko Negishi) fashions a pretty wreath from the plants at her feet, while the spunky Sekimoto (Yuriko Ogino) practices tai chi, calming her companions with her deft moves. Finally, the youngest of the group, the determinedly stylish Yumiko (Chigusa Yasuzawa), is something of a life philosopher, claiming that all women over 40 are essentially the same age.

But the search fails and the day advances. Not only that, Kuwata (Mie Kirihara) — a plain-talking housewife who is friends with Tamaru — injures her back. Also, despite being an enthusiastic mountain hiker, the groups’ eldest member, the gritty 79-year-old Hanazawa (Keiko Tokuno), needs to eat, drink and sleep. Minus any supplies beyond the snacks they have in their bags, how can this motley crew do all of the above, and also find their way home?

From this point the film might — in another, wilder location — have become a harrowing tale of survival. But this is Japan, where daytrips to waterfalls seldom end in anything more disastrous than a sprained ankle. Even so, the women do have their mettle tested, to predictably inspiring results.

More interesting than their mild adventures are the ways they express themselves as distinct, engaging individuals. Professional actors do this sort of thing as a matter of course, but Okita’s cast are unknowns, with little or no acting experience. Even so, they naturally and forcefully embody the truth that women of a certain age, who tend to become invisible to society, have personalities, strengths and importance.

As a film, “Ecotherapy Getaway Holiday” may be in a minor key, but as a feminist manifesto, it rings out loud and clear.


Fun fact: Premiering in the Japanese Cinema Splash section at this year’s Tokyo International Film Festival, “Taki wo Mi ni Iku (Ecotherapy Getaway Holiday)” won a Special Mention from the jury. It had its international premiere at the recently ended Hawaii International Film Festival.

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