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by Mark Jenkins,
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FEBRUARY 20, 2009

Last Dance

Doris Dörrie's latest attempt to reconcile Germany and Japan finds glimmers of empathy as it travels from Bavaria to Butoh.

By Mark Jenkins

Also opening in D.C. this week, a film I reviewed for NPR: THE CLASS. Clicking on that title will take you to Coming soon: An interview with the movie's director, LAURENT CANTET.

AN ELDERLY COUPLE travels from the provinces to the big city to visit the kids, who are too busy and self-absorbed to pay them much mind; ultimately, the younger person who's most interested and respectful is not one of their own. That's the plot of Yasujiro Ozu's 1953 masterpiece, Tokyo Story, which writer-director Doris Dörrie recycles not once but twice in her latest tale of German-Japanese cultural dissonance and spiritual rapport.

That Dörrie reworks Ozu's scenario two times is typical of Cherry Blossoms: Hanami, a shapeless, overstuffed movie that nonetheless sometimes happens on twinklings of beauty or insight. The filmmaker's interest in Japan's spare aesthetics and philosophy — which previously inspired her Enlightenment Guaranteed, The Fisherman and His Wife, and How to Cook Your Life — hasn't led her to an Ozu-like simplicity.

So interconnected that their names rhyme, Rudi (Elmar Wepper) and Trudi (Hannelore Elsner) live quietly in a small Bavarian town. Rudi is a municipal bureaucrat, supervising garbage and recycling programs. Trudi is an empty-nest housewife with a lingering interest in Butoh dance and a long-frustrated desire to visit Japan and behold Mount Fuji.

One of the couple's children, Karl (Maximillian Brückner), actually lives in Tokyo, where he works the expected long hours as a "numbers cruncher." But after Rudi is diagnosed with an unidentified, gently fatal disease, Trudi can push him only as far as Berlin, where Klaus (Felix Eitner) lives with his wife and kids and Karolina (Birgit Minichmayr) lives with her lesbian lover, Franzi (Nadja Uhl). The film's first counterpart to Tokyo Story's daughter-in-law, Franzi is more attentive to the visitors than are their selfish offspring.

Perhaps Trudi could have convinced Rudi to go to Japan if she had told him he's terminal, but that diagnosis — unbelievably — is a secret between Trudi and her husband's doctors. Rudi's illness remains unknown after the parents flee Berlin for a Baltic resort, where Trudi quietly dies.

Bereft, Rudi flies to Tokyo, carrying some of his wife's clothing so her spirit can have an after-death experience of Japan. Improbably, Karl does nothing to acclimatize his father to his pulsing, packed neighborhood. It is, of course, Shinjuku, the throbbing business and entertainment precinct where most of Lost in Translation transpires.

The center section of Cherry Blossoms is all too reminiscent of Lost in Translation. Both films exaggerate Tokyo's inscrutability, while taking their protagonists through doors that rarely open to foreigners. Waitresses in Western-style bars address Rudi in Japanese rather than English (which he speaks). Yet bouncers admit him to strip clubs and "soaplands" (where men are bathed and, uh, you know by young nude women) — both of which are usually off-limits to non-Japanese clients.

The oddest cultural blooper occurs not in Kabukicho, Tokyo's premier sex-business district, but in Karl's tiny apartment: Dismayed by the state of his son's trash can, Rudi carefully sorts the recyclables. But Japan has the world's strictest recycling regulations, so Karl would have already learned to sort glass from metal, or paid major fines.

One day, Karl takes Rudi to a hanami, a springtime blossom-viewing party. (Hanami literally means "flower-see.") These events supposedly celebrate the ephemeral beauty of life, but are also pretexts for heavy drinking. Having consumed the requisite amount of sake, a drunken Karl rails at his father for having been distant from and uninvolved with his children.

So much for Karl. Rudi encounters Yu (Aya Irizuki), a homeless teenage butoh dancer who performs daily for her dead mother in Ueno Park, central Tokyo's largest open space. The two survivors bond — in English — and soon Yu is leading Rudi on an expedition to Mount Fuji. The peak remains swathed in clouds — "he is very shy," Yu explains — so the pilgrims wait at a traditional Japanese inn. That leaves uptight Rudi several days to learn acceptance and self-expression. Fuji eventually appears; so does death.

That might seem too much plot summary, but knowing what happens won't spoil the film's effect; between the Tokyo Story rewrite and Rudi's diagnosis, the tale's direction quickly becomes clear. Besides, what commends Cherry Blossoms are moments of grace, not the narrative.

A seasoned observer of the battles between German spouses, parents, and children, Dörrie doesn't have much to add on the topic. But the director breaks free, much as she did with Enlightenment Guaranteed, when her protagonist leaves Germany and touches down in Japan. The change isn't a matter of graceful storytelling — Dörrie can be overstated on any continent — but of mood and serendipity. The director is forever akin to one of her own characters, new to Japan and eager to be transformed, suddenly more open to nuance.

As a contemplation of death, and the Japanese rituals that accompany it, Cherry Blossoms is less striking than Departures, which is nominated for a 2009 foreign-film Oscar. (It's not likely to win.) But Cherry Blossoms does have some lovely sequences, evoking possibilities of transformation and empathy. Just not, of course, with your own countrymen, or your own relatives.

CHERRY BLOSSOMS: HANAMI — 2008, 127 min; at Landmark E Street.