A heart-warming tale about an elderly woman’s struggles with dementia as seen from the perspective of her young grandson, “Grandma is Okay” (“Baba wa, Daijobu”) is the latest movie by Yokohama-born filmmaker Jacky Woo.
Based on Akiko Kusunoki’s picture book of the same name, it stars veteran actress Manami Fuji, whose portrayal of the suffering grandmother is both touching and realistic.
The standout performance, however, undoubtedly comes from male lead Kokoro Terada, a child actor who doesn’t turn 11 until next month. He has already featured on a variety of TV shows and films, but he is probably best-known for starring in a toilet commercial that has racked up more than 1.8 million views on YouTube.
In “Grandma is Okay,” Kokoro plays Tsubasa, a timid elementary school student struggling to come to terms with his grandmother’s condition. She had always been the member of the family he had been closest with, but her personality has changed. She has stopped taking care of her appearance, regularly forgets things, and loses her temper easily for no apparent reason. Scared by her behavior, he tries to avoid the woman who had previously been such a reassuring figure in his life.
“I was thinking about my own grandmother during the making of this film,” Kokoro says. “I wanted to get the role for her because I love her so much. In the scenes where I had to cry, I imagined what it would be like if she was sick like that and the tears came out naturally. I asked (Manami) Fuji if I could call her Baba and often hugged her as I wanted to set it in my mind that she was my grandma.”
While displaying the charm of your typical neighborhood kid, Kokoro presents himself as being very mature for his age and that was one of the reasons Woo chose him for the film.
“More than 50 children auditioned for the role and there were many strong candidates, but Kokoro was on a different level,” says the director. “It was like dealing with an adult playing the part of a kid. He was born to act. His emotional range, level of sensitivity and ability to pick things up quickly is remarkable for someone of his age.”
Woo spent a lot of time with Kokoro during filming and prepared a special script for him. The extra effort paid off with the child star picking up the award for best leading male actor in a foreign-language movie at the Milan Film Festival, becoming the youngest-ever person to do so. It was a double celebration on the night as Woo also won the best director of a foreign-language feature film prize.
“I was thrilled to get the award, but I was more pleased for Kokoro,” says the filmmaker. “I thought he’d been nominated as the best newcomer, so it was a surprise to see him triumph in the best actor category. He fully deserved it, though, as his performance was special. He got a standing ovation at the festival. I don’t remember anyone else getting that kind of reaction.”
“I burst out crying when I heard I’d won,” adds Kokoro. “I didn’t expect it. I wanted to thank everyone: the cast, the crew, my grandmother, all my family, my dog, anyone who’s been there for me in my life.”
Kokoro was just 3 when he started working in the entertainment industry. Interest in the youngster grew sharply after his appearance as the mini fungus “Little Ben” in the toilet commercial. Since then he’s been in various programs including the Russian-language detective series “The Sniffer,” the NHK period drama “Onna Joshu Naotora” (“Naotora: The Lady Warlord”), and the Fuji TV show “Our House” alongside his idol, Mana Ashida.
“She was one of the reasons I became an actor,” Kokoro says, smiling. “I was only 3, so my memory is hazy, but I’ve been told I was watching her drama ‘Mother’ with my Mom who said I should try doing something similar. I gave it a go. Early on, I didn’t really know what was happening, but after a while I came to understand things more and my interest (in acting) grew. I hope I can keep getting better.”
Woo has also done his fair share of acting, with his first starring role coming in “Total Aikido,” a 2001 action movie set in Manila. Other notable titles he’s featured in include “Shaolin vs. Evil Dead” with “Kill Bill” actor Gordon Liu, the American sci-fi flick “Super Tanker” and the war drama “Death March,” which was screened in the Un Certain Regard section at the 2013 Cannes Film Festival. As a director, he is probably best known for the movie, “Kiseki no Hagaki” (“The Miraculous Postcards”). Similar to “Grandma is Okay,” it’s a moving family-focused drama featuring an elderly character suffering from dementia.
“I have a close relative with dementia so I know how hard it can be, not only for people with the illness but also for those around them,” says Woo. “Seeing a loved one like that is heart-breaking, but it’s not a hopeless situation and I believe the audience can take some heart from the resolve of the family in ‘Grandma is Okay.’
“I was moved when I read Kusunoki’s story,” continues Woo. “The most difficult thing for me was figuring out how to turn a 30-page picture book into a feature-length film. To do that, I needed to add extra characters such as the helpful neighbor. In between scenes, I consulted with medical experts to ensure we had a good understanding of the disease. It’s a common situation for many families to be in, so it was important to make sure everything was realistic.”
First described by the German doctor Alois Alzheimer in 1906, dementia is considered one of the great health challenges of the 21st century. Every three seconds someone develops the illness, which equates to roughly 9.9 million new cases across the world every year. Globally, around 50 million people are currently living with dementia, a number that is expected to rise to 130 million in 30 years as populations age.
“Anyone could be affected by dementia,” says Kokoro. “Even for someone young like me, I think it’s important to try and understand the illness because it could happen to a grandparent, parent or friend. You should be kind and stay patient even if they repeat themselves or forget your name. I hope people watching the film learn something about dementia and the power of a loving family.”
“Grandma is Okay,” was released on May 10 and is showing at branches of Aeon Cinema nationwide. For more information, visit www.grandmaisokay.com.