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By now, dozens of Japanese films have depicted the trials and tribulations of old age, especially dementia, in all its forms. This reflects reality: Japan is a country where elementary schools are closing and nursing homes are booming.

Shuichi Okita’s take on this reality is more upbeat than the genre standard, however. His earlier films “Ecotherapy Getaway Holiday” (2014) and “Mori, The Artist’s Habitat” (2018) feature elderly protagonists who find ways to survive and thrive, despite their frailties — mental or physical. And for all their quirky gags and feel-good messaging, these films do not treat old age as a joke or a stroll into a glowing sunset. They present it with shades-of-gray complexity.

So it is with “Ora, Ora Be Goin’ Alone,” a film based on Chisako Wakatake’s award-winning, best-selling novel. The protagonist, Momoko (Yuko Tanaka), is a widow living alone in a suburban house somewhere in Tokyo. She first came to the capital from her native Tohoku in 1964, the year of the first Tokyo Olympics.

Ora, Ora Be Goin’ Alone (Ora Ora De Hitori Igu Mo)
Rating
Run Time 137 min.
Language Japanese
Opens Nov. 6

Back then, she was determined to become a “new woman” free of the shackles of tradition (including an arranged marriage that she narrowly escaped). However, Momoko fell in love with a good-natured Tohoku guy, Shuzo (Masahiro Higashide), who understood her dialect — and her heart. Marriage and two children followed, but now she wonders what it was all for. Her husband is dead, her son is a stranger and her daughter only visits when she wants money. What happened to her ideals and her life?

These reflections bring Momoko to tears, but they also summon a goofy Greek chorus of three guys (Gaku Hamada, Munetaka Aoki and Kankuro Kudo) wearing matching granny clothes who call themselves “Ora” (“I” in the Tohoku dialect). The imaginary Oras comment on Momoko’s thoughts, especially the negative ones. While she fights these hallucinations and refuses to fall for their tricks, she can’t get rid of them, just as she keeps revisiting memories of her younger, happier and more vital self (played by Yu Aoi).

And yet the film is less about Momoko’s slide into dementia and nostalgia, and more about her sorting out the meaning of her existence and rediscovering what she has lost.

Scripted by Okita, “Ora, Ora” may be weighty in theme, but its approach is light without being trivial, antic without being silly. And for all the freeform fantasizing about the contents of her mind, Momoko is an individual, not a stereotype, who is still capable of surprising herself, as well as the audience.

Yuko Tanaka, who has made a specialty of playing women older than her actual age (a youthful 65), is perfectly cast as Momoko. While portraying the lead’s afflictions and regrets with gentle comedy and pathos, Tanaka injects her with verve and fire: This is a septuagenarian who dances to jazz and fiercely battles a stubborn cockroach. And she is in comedic and dramatic synch with the three Oras, who are her confidants and sympathizers, as well as her saboteurs.

Okita is so fond of his heroine, in fact, that he can’t bear to let her go, giving us scene after climactic scene. I got the point, referenced in the title, long before the credits rolled. As a folk tune puts it: “You got to walk that lonesome valley / You got to walk it for yourself.”

And Momoko, with her Oras in tow, strides gamely on.

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