Kawasaki in Kanagawa Prefecture is famed for three things: yakiniku barbecue restaurants, sex shops and a high crime rate. Though parts of the city are middle class, a grittier and lower-income image of Kawasaki has persisted through the years.

“Sakura no Kino Shita” (“Under the Cherry Tree”), directorial debut of 29-year-old Kei Tanaka, puts a different spin on Kawasaki without being too positive about it. Tanaka’s work was first shown at the Yamagata International Documentary Film Festival last year and her new film is about retired Kawasaki laborers living in communal camaraderie in a place called Nogawa Nishi Danchi. The director herself was born and raised in the city and lived part of her childhood in a danchi, a kind of public housing complex now being torn down all over the archipelago.

Nogawa Nishi is distinctive in that it’s still functioning, and services single retirees with nowhere to go. Focusing on four tenants, Tanaka’s film shows how these old people look after each other, cook together and hold impromptu gatherings. At the back of everyone’s minds is a cheerful resignation that they will die alone. One man professes to have made a will, as “evidence that I was here, and living in this world.”

“I didn’t want to overdramatize their lives or deaths,” says Tanaka. “I just wanted to show the flow of their days and how they weren’t having a bad time in their old age.”

The film is in no way tragic. On the contrary, these people are independent, with dwellings they can call home. That’s more than you can say about many of Japan’s other elderly residents.

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