Writer-director Doris Dörrie is well-known for a series of comedy-dramas among a total of thirty films. She also writes novels and directs operas. I very much enjoyed her 2008 film Kirschblüten (Cherry Blossom) and I was therefore looking forward to her new film, her fourth made in Japan. She says she has visited Japan 25 times but that she still doesn’t understand everything Japanese. That may be so but the Japan she depicts in her films looks recognisable as the Japan of films and novels that I am aware of. It may still puzzle audiences in Germany and North America on the basis of IMdB comments and that’s a shame, but it works for me.
Kirschblüten took an older German to Japan where he develops a friendship with a young Japanese woman to their mutual benefit. Something similar happens in Greetings from Fukushima, but this time it’s a young woman from Germany and an older Japanese woman who build a relationship. Marie (Rosalie Thomass) is heartbroken when she is jilted on her wedding day and she makes the decision to join an aid organisation offering entertainment to the almost forgotten victims of the Fukushima disaster of 2011. A small area of the Japanese coast suffered three disasters all at once – an earthquake, a tsunami and a radiation leak from a nuclear plant. The younger people from the area have already moved to the city. Only a few older people are left in temporary accommodation. Marie joins a pair of entertainers, supposedly as a clown. She isn’t a very good clown and her own misery doesn’t help. She wants to go home. One day an older woman among the survivors persuades (forcibly) Marie to drive her to her old home in the ‘zone’. Marie is a reluctant assistant but eventually begins to help Satomi to patch up and clean the house and then to stay with her. Slowly it emerges that Satomi (Kaori Momoi) was a geisha whose American customers had taught her enough English to enable her to converse with Marie. Slowly, she begins to teach the gawky (and very tall) young German to be more ‘elegant’ (she refers to Marie as an ‘elephant’ because of her clumsiness – and the fact she eats so much). Eventually we learn that at the time of the disaster, Satomi had a pupil Yuki who was swept away by the tsunami and that this memory haunts Satomi.
The film is also known as Fukushima Mon Amour – seemingly a reference to Alain Resnais’ 1959 film Hiroshima mon amour. The earlier film sees a French woman on a ‘peace and reconciliation’ mission to Hiroshima to remember the devastation caused by the atomic bomb explosion and the intense relationship she has with a Japanese man. The similarities in the narratives of the two films was also there in Kirschblüten which to some extent ‘riffed’ on Ozu Yasujiro’s 1953 film Tokyo Story. Dörrie makes these references sensitively and carefully. Greetings from Fukushima is shot in black & white CinemaScope recalling that favourite Japanese format of the early 1960s (I haven’t yet found Dörrie’s explanation as to why she chose it). She begins the film with almost surreal shots of Marie’s trauma after rejection on her wedding day. Later, she includes sequences with the ghosts that haunt both women. Yet her presentation of Fukushima is essentially ‘realist’ and at times like a documentary. She used the real location of the Exclusion Zone, explaining in an interview that she was shooting alongside the workers who were lifting the radiated soil (which is stored in bags along the roadside). I recognised the landscape from Sion Sono’s Himizu (2011) which also used locations associated with the impact of the tsunami. The documentary feel and the narrative of a European observer of Japanese customs also suggests the remarkable ‘essay film’ Sans Soleil (1983) by Chris Marker. I was reminded of this by the cat figure (a man with a large cat’s head) who Marie meets at a Tokyo station. Marker’s film includes a sequence exploring the various local rituals and ceremonies associated with animal statues around Tokyo. Dörrie’s film is rich in provocations such as these. Though her film might be seen as conventional and therefore predictable – young woman learns from older woman and becomes a better person – I enjoyed it very much because it most of all justifies the director’s interest in observing and recording her impressions of Japan, its cultures and the lives of ordinary Japanese people. It is a gentle and slightly absurdist comedy as well as a sensitive commentary on a combination of disasters and their impact on a local community. By default, it may also be a critique of how both Japanese and international authorities have responded to the plight of the victims.
Grüße aus Fukushima was released in Germany in March 2016 and has appeared at various international film festivals since then. I’m really pleased that the Leeds International Film Festival has managed to show it. It screens again at the Hyde Park Picture House today and again on Wednesday 9th November at 15.30. I can’t find anything about a UK distribution deal for the film but I hope that someone does take a chance. This is an enjoyable and thought-provoking film with excellent cinematography (by Hanno Lentz) and music (score by Ulrike Haage).
Here’s the German trailer: