Tuesday, November 09, 2010

Flowers (フラワーズ)

The Splendid Six

Director Norihiro Koizumi (Midnight Sun) brings together a stellar ensemble cast of some of Japanese Cinema's more recognizable faces in Flowers, in celebration of the woman of the times from the 30s to the new millennium, while also paying tribute to the distinct look and feel of Japanese cinema over the same time span. It hasn't struck me until now that when you look at a Japanese film, through its themes or misc-en-scene, you can quite accurately predict the specific period of time it's set in or made during, and Koizumi meticulously brings out this distinction in a beautifully melodramatic tale written by Shu Fujimoto and Yuiko Miura.

The narrative spans three generations of a family as portrayed by six different actresses in stories over the period from 1939 to 2009, where we begin in pre-WWII before flipping to contemporary Tokyo, followed by tales set in the 60s and 70s that form the bulk, going back and forth in time quite effortlessly since each character and actress hold court in their respective stories. Yu Aoi opens the film in black and white, set in 1939 as Generation 1, where her Rin spends her last day with her family and as a single woman, on the eve of her arranged marriage. But we learn that she isn't as demure as she looks and has a mind of her own, and wedding anxieties aside, is not quite ready to leave her home for a new life outside of her comfort zone. A conflict arises when she goes headlong in her disagreement with her dad.

Then we're introduced to Generation 3, which I felt was quite the smart thing to do to keep the audience in temporal suspense, since we now know what will eventually transpire in Rin's story to get to where we are in 2009, but would very much want to know the details in between. Generation 3 sees Kyoka Suzuki and Ryoko Hirosue play sisters Kana and Kei respectively, where they get together with their extended family during a death in the family. Kana's story involves her as a promising pianist being relegated to a page turner, and also coping with the confusion and dilemma of a single motherhood experience, being pregnant out of wedlock. Her sister Kei on the other hand is happily married with a toddler in tow, and is of a vastly different demeanour to the constantly sulking Kana, since her philosophy in life is to find joy in everything she does. This is again a creative brilliance in holding back just enough to keep our interests piqued, where it provides an emotional punch toward the third act of the film, and Hirosue fits the characterization like hand in glove, since I always associate her with something bright and sunny.

Generation 2 is where the other half of the six actresses dwell in, being sisters Kaoru (Yuko Takeuchi), Midori (Rena Tanaka) and Sato (Yukie Nakama), with their stories set in the 60s and 70s, and the themes of love and family couldn't be more keenly felt here. Kaoru and Midori meet up back in their mother Rin's house for a festival, which culminates in their sharing of thoughts and counsel. We're also brought back in time for some years which deals with the story of Kaoru and her loss, which is told with a lot of heartfelt sensitivity, in a melancholic tale about loss, the fight in keeping one's memory alive, loaded with sentiments of being afraid to let go. In Midori's case, we see how a headstrong tomboy decide to embrace her feminine side and charms, which I think most modern day feminists might be up in arms against, but hey, it's the 60s we're talking about here, and things like the glass ceiling, and workplace attitudes still being quite backward if measured against today's standards.

While Midori's story may be with a tinge of comedy, Sato's story will tug hard at your heartstrings even though what's to come had already been hinted at earlier. It deals with life and death, and the unconditional love any mother develops for her child, unborn even, where calculated risks get taken in order to bring out a life and to introduce the wonders of what our world can offer. Perhaps this story arc is stylistically the simplest and the most direct, but is amongst the highest in the emotional quotient compared to the rest.

And what made it work for Flowers, is the extreme attention to detail across all technical departments, from the production sets to the costumes, with each of the actresses sticking closely to the acting styles and demeanours as warranted by characters and actresses of their respective era. It's as if we are looking and gazing at a time capsule of a period gone not only through cinema, but of cinema itself, and this works brilliantly on many levels. Fans of Japanese cinema will probably have a field day with the technical nuances found in all the scenes, techniques and style employed.

What is wonderful as well is that the actresses don't have to play their characters across the different timelines, as if each time period snapshots all of them at their respective prime of their lives, without a need for any fanciful makeup or effects to age them considerably, since there's no need to. Earlier generations are referred to by name, incident or flashback, and this provides enough glue to hold down the lineage the narrative subjects us to, without having to be too cumbersome in treatment.

Six intertwined stories about love, family and femininity by six wonderful actresses (according to the AsianMediaWiki stated they have all starred in Shiseido's popular Tsubaki commercials), and an ode to Japanese cinema spanning over 70 years cannot be any better than this. I'm a sucker for nostalgia with solid storytelling that's well acted, and Flowers earns its distinction to be shortlisted for being one of the best films this year. Highly recommended!

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