Tohoku. Fukushima. 3/11. Before the earthquake and tsunami that occurred last year, these places and this date would have had no meaning to a majority of the people around the world. After the disaster that befell Japan though, there is a weight applied to these words whenever spoken or written, stark images of devastation and death that have no parallel except for images of Hiroshima after the bomb and Tokyo during the early part of the Postwar years. Although the wound is still fresh and not yet appropriately scabbed over, there has already been a deluge of media devoted to dealing with the tragedy in ways that bridge the traditions of fiction and documentary, in effect creating a sub-genre that New York Times film critic Dennis Lim has likened to that of “disaster tourism”.
For Osaka born filmmaker Atsushi Funahashi, the trauma of March 11 is fertile ground for discussion and debate. Less than a year after the tragedy, he released a documentary, Nuclear Nation, which attempts to address the radioactive fallout caused by the Fukushima Daiichi power plant through the 1,400 Futaba exiles that have been displaced by the nuclear catastrophe. The documentary has played on three continents already and gained a considerable amount of critical cache. In the middle of all the festival brouhaha, Funahashi also wrote and directed Cold Bloom (2012), a film about a young woman living in the wake of two tragedies, 3/11 and the death of her husband.
Shot in a predominantly cinema-verite style with sprinklings of fantasy-dream elements, Funahashi’s film may never be categorized as “feel-good” but there isn’t any of the nihilism and overwhelming sense of despair that was apparent in Sion Sono’s post-Tohoku film Himizu (2011), shot only a couple of months after the tsunami and Fukushima controversy. It doesn’t attempt to tackle “big issues” by offering up politically charged messages about the current state of Japan. There are no big imposing groups, institutions, and political/criminal groups to contend with. The film is an interior drama. Relying heavily on the lead actress Asami Usuda, playing the widow Shiori, to keep our attention as she tries to move on with her life after her husband Kenji’s (You Takahashi) terrible accident. All of the ephemera of her previous life with Kenji – the house they bought, the motorbike they rode to work, the friends and family who online casino knew them as one unit instead of as individuals – all perfectly still existing as Shiori is stuck trying to build the “ordinary family” she had hoped to build with Kenji. A key to understanding Shiori and Funahashi’s film rests early on in the picture during a particularly intimate moment between the young couple as Kenji looks at the buds of a cherry tree. Thinking for a moment, he then makes a disarmingly simple observation that will reverberate throughout the entire film. To Kenji, the cherry blossoms that dot the Japanese landscape do not symbolize purity and innocence but rather hesitation, the buds waiting an entire year for the perfect day to blossom and when that day finally arrives they give it everything they have, ironically living for only a few days before their white and pink petals turn brown and are cast away by an unfeeling gust of wind.
With her husband gone, Shiori, like the un-blossomed cherry bud that Kenji was inspecting, waits throughout the film for a sign, a signal to finally move on. Shiori begins to dive into an alternate dream universe, where she has the ordinary life that she always wanted, but the friction caused from her Kenji-less world knocks her back to reality. Her salvation out of this fantasy cycle comes in the form of Takumi (Takahiro Miura), the man who had an accidental hand in Kenji’s death. Although Shiori is disgusted with Takumi, she never allows her anger to betray her calm quiet demeanor. More of a victim of circumstances than a perpetrator of an unforgivable crime Takumi is chained to the company because of a promise he made to Kenji before he died. The expectations of Western dramaturgy make their eventual relationship an inevitability and their constant back and forth interactions do eventually have the two colliding in a unconventional romantic relationship.
Funahashi, like a true documentarian, doesn’t offer a simple resolution to Shiori’s story. She exists, just as many Japanese do, in a precarious time. However, instead of focusing on devastation and death, Atsushi Funahashi is more concerned with the path to recovery, exemplified towards the end of the film when Shiori whispers in Takumi’s ear that she finally forgives him. This intimate moment between the two whose relationship is an equal mix of love, self-loathing, and emotional dependence is as far as Shiori will go with the man who has fallen in love with her. She has begun to mend her heart and her life. Takumi may love her and going away with him may mean a better life, but Shiori is tired of running and makes her way back to her sleepy ghost town just in time to watch the cherry blossoms. The time for rebuilding has come and hopefully whatever new world built on top of the old heap can withstand whatever new disasters may occur.