Movie's 91-year-old heroine seen as role model

Polish film resonates with elderly widows

by Michiko Munakata


A Polish film about a woman in her early ’90s has become a big hit with middle-aged and elderly Japanese women, apparently reflecting a social trend in which women increasingly aspire to spend their twilight years without relying on anyone’s help.

The 2007 film, “Time to Die,” directed by Dorota Kedzierzawska, is the story of a 91-year-old widow who decides to live the remainder of her life alone after her hopes of living with her son are dashed by his unwillingness.

The story of a solitary elderly woman in failing health struggling through her final days has struck an emotional chord with many Japanese women.

Tickets were sold out immediately from mid-April to mid-June when the picture was screened at Iwanami Hall, a movie theater in Tokyo.

About 90 percent of those who watched the movie were women in their 50s to 70s.

Explaining why the film became such a sensation among this female age group, Takako Yamoto, an official at Iwanami Hall, said, “Women thought about their future while following the story of the heroine and embraced her as their role model.”

“I admired the positive attitude of the heroine,” said a 68-year-old woman from Saitama Prefecture.

The movie will be screened at theaters nationwide until the end of the year.

The film’s success took its distributor, Pioniwa Film Inc., by surprise. “Movie houses around the country decided to screen the film after it became widely known through word of mouth. This kind of thing seldom happens (in the movie industry),” a company official said.

Extended families consisting of three generations are becoming increasingly rare in Japan, with more and more elderly couples electing not living with their children. The number of such senior couples aged 65 and above soared to some 4.68 million in 2009, up from about 1 million in 1986. And an increasing number of widows are now living alone as women more often than not survive their husbands.

“Older women who married and had nuclear families are thinking about how to live in their old age after accepting they will be spending their final days by themselves,” said Haruyo Inoue, a professor at Toyo University and the author of a book on how to prepare for one’s death, “Wanting to Die without Burdening Children.”

The spread of this attitude among Japanese women was one reason for the success of the film, she said.

The great popularity of books offering advice to women on how to spend their sunset years is a publishing phenomenon that is said to have set in after a best-selling book by Chizuko Ueno, a pioneer in Japanese gender studies, was released in 2007.

Ueno’s book, titled “Ohitorisama no Rogo” (“A Single Person in Old Age”), gives readers a wealth of tips on how to arrange for their own nursing care and deal with the coming end to their lives.

Yoshiaki Kiyota, a representative of Shuppan News Co., which provides information on publishing trends, said, “This type of book possesses the potential to establish itself as a new genre,” noting the high level of awareness of the issue among elderly women.

Japanese women have the world’s highest average life expectancy, at 86, while Japanese men tied in second place with Australia, Israel, Iceland and Switzerland at 80, according to a World Health Organization report issued in May.

Many women are also reflecting upon their own terminal care. One indicator of such a trend is the membership of the Japan Society for Dying with Dignity. The group, which opposes keeping patients alive on life support, boasted 125,910 members as of the end of May, of which nearly 85,000 were women.

“Women rather than men, who are absorbed in their work, often look after their aging parents,” said Masafumi Takai, a senior official of the society. “Because of their experience of having cared for their parents, women can be more decisive about making a choice about their own death.”

While women strive to be self-reliant in their old age, Inoue of Toyo University said that women trying to grapple with the issue of how to live out their lives seem to embody the attitude of “a new breed of seniors who think and act independently.”