Film / Reviews

'A Long Goodbye': Taking a lighter look at Alzheimer's

by Mark Schilling

Contributing Writer

Japanese films about dementia are by now many and, given demographic trends here, interest in the subject is both natural and necessary.

But as seen in “A Long Goodbye,” Ryota Nakano’s drama about a family dealing with the dementia of its once-proud patriarch, dementia has also become a common device for having extracting audience tears. Not that the film, which stars Tsutomu Yamazaki as the patriarch, is a standard weepie. In fact, its subtitle could be “the lighter, brighter side of Alzheimer’s.”

Based on Kyoko Nakajima’s novel, the film portrays every stage of its hero’s disease, from beginning to end. A retired middle school principal who was once an omnivorous reader, Shohei Higashi (Yamazaki) is early on reduced to staring uncomprehendingly at the pages of a favorite book — and finally eating one in a half-conscious attempt to retain something.

A Long Goodbye (Nagai Owakare)
Rating
Run Time 127 mins.
Language JAPANESE
Opens May 31

But the predominant tone, underscored by the wistful, endlessly repeated piano theme, is one of sweet sadness with the emphasis on “sweet.” The pains and burdens of dementia, from the physical explosions of the afflicted to the psychological exhaustion of the caregivers, are softened, if not elided.

When Shohei goes wandering one day, his wife, Yoko (Chieko Matsubara), and his adult daughters Mari (Yuko Takeuchi) and Fumi (Yu Aoi) launch a frantic search — and find him by a nearby river, together with his grandson and a guy who was Fumi’s former classmate. Sitting side by side, they suck on popsicles in unison. How cute.

The story begins in the fall of 2007, when Shohei is about to celebrate his 70th birthday. Yoko contacts Fumi, an aspiring chef, and Mari, a housewife living in California with her researcher husband and young son, saying that their father wants to talk to them about money and asking them to come home. But when they arrive, they find Shohei already far gone in dementia and only occasionally rational. Mom, they realize, couldn’t bring herself to tell them the real reason for calling this family gathering.

This, as it turns out, is the start of a seven-year journey, with the story moving in two-year jumps as it tracks Shohei’s decline, Meanwhile, it follows the lives of Fumi and Mari when they are not with or worrying about their father. These subplots are mostly filler of a familiar sort, with neither woman making much progress, be it in realizing a professional dream and finding personal happiness (Fumi) or coping with a foreign environment and difficult family situation (Mari). Fumi fails at a food truck business and a relationship with the classmate. Mari remains unhappily monolingual after years in the U.S., while becoming alienated from her now rebellious teenage son and her Americanized (that is, coldly logical and selfishly individualistic) husband.

But once reunited with their loving, ever-loyal mother and steadily deteriorating father the two sisters rediscover not only old memories, but also a family feeling they were once in danger of losing. And Shohei, who becomes child-like and finally all-but oblivious, serves as an unwitting confessor figure, framed as less depressing than somehow comforting.

A favorite of Akira Kurosawa and Juzo Itami, the 82-year-old Yamazaki plays Shohei with dry comic touches, while calibrating every stage of his deterioration with a realism that edges over into the disturbing. Without him to lower the sugar count, “A Long Goodbye” would be agonizingly endless.

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