Sayuri Yoshinaga is the last star of Japan’s postwar studio era to still be a box-office force. Playing a pure-hearted teen in films for Nikkatsu in the 1960s, she attracted a huge, mainly male, following known as “Sayurists.”
Now 73 and appearing in her 120th film, “Sakura Guardian in the North,” the ageless Yoshinaga shows no sign of slowing down. In this third installment of her “North” trilogy of films set in Hokkaido — the other two are “A Chorus of Angels” (2012) and “Year One in the North” (2005) — she wades into a frigid sea and hauls herself by rope up a long flight of stone steps to a mountaintop shrine. In other words, she’s as doughty and disciplined as ever.
But the film is also an illustration of why Yoshinaga, an icon at home, is still little known abroad. Directed by Yojiro Takita, best known overseas for the Oscar-winning “Departures” (2008), this melodrama about the travails of a war widow (Yoshinaga) in postwar Hokkaido strenuously jerks tears and shamelessly exploits core values, particularly motherly self-sacrifice and endurance in the face of suffering.
The story by Machiko Nasu, who also scripted the other two “North” films, never misses a chance to plunge Yoshinaga’s character, Tetsu Ezure, into agonies and upsets. No wonder the poor woman goes half mad, but since this is a Yoshinaga movie, it’s a noble sort of craziness, caused as it is by wounds to the purest of hearts. Outsiders may snigger, but Sayurists will celebrate, yet again, their idol’s saintliness, similar to the cherry blossom (a key symbol) in its all-too-transient glory.
As the story begins it is August 1945. Tetsu, her husband, Tokujiro (Hiroshi Abe), and their two young sons, Seitaro and Shujiro, are living in harmony and relative peace on the island of Sakhalin, a Japanese colony. Then the atomic bombs drop, the Soviets invade Sakhalin, and Tetsu and her boys flee for Hokkaido while Tokujiro stays behind to fight.
Flash forward to 1971. Shujiro (Masato Sakai) is an executive at a U.S. hot-dog restaurant chain and married to Mari (Ryoko Shinohara), the Americanized daughter of the company’s Japanese president. He is in Sapporo to launch a restaurant/convenience store, the chain’s first in Japan, when he reluctantly reunites with his estranged mother, once the proprietor of a busy Japanese-style diner, now living in poverty in remote Abashiri.
Tetsu had cut off contact with her son, but now she is in dire straits — and Shujiro takes her in, over Mari’s objections. Tetsu is not only unaccustomed to city ways, causing problems with locals that Shujiro has to smooth over, but is also mentally disturbed, talking to a cherry tree and her own reflection.
As the story moves back and forth between past and present, as well as a stage play that comments on the action, we see that far from being a cold mother, Tetsu was a paragon of maternal devotion. She has also inspired love in everyone from a rough-hewn former black market rice dealer (Koichi Sato), now a successful businessman, to a kindly diner regular (Ittoku Kishibe) who was in the same POW camp as Tokujiro. But pain from her losses has never ended — and has finally unbalanced her mind.
“Sakura Guardian in the North” may be the ripest of ripe melodramas, but Sayuri, as she has always been known by her fans, will soldier on. An inspiration to us all.