REVIEW / DRAMA
SAKURA GUARDIAN IN THE NORTH (PG)
126 minutes/Opens today/3 stars
The story: In August 1945, the Soviet Union invades the Japanese portion of Sakhalin island. Tetsu Ezure (Sayuri Yoshinaga) flees to Abashiri, Hokkaido, with her two sons Seitaro (Satsuki Sakamoto) and Shujiro (Keita Tsuchiya), reluctantly leaving her husband (Hiroshi Abe) behind to fight the enemy. Years later, her younger son Shujiro (now played by Masato Sakai) appears to be doing well as he opens a hotdog outlet franchised from his wife Mari's (Ryoko Shinohara) father. But he is estranged from his mother, who seems to be losing her grip on reality. The two reconnect on a journey back to Abashiri and into the past.
In Departures (2008), director Yojiro Takita touchingly explored family ties through the Japanese ritual of cleansing a dead body for the funeral. It won a slew of awards, including an Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film.
Sakura Guardian In The North is also about family, but it is seen through a different lens.
The backdrop of wartime upheaval and hardships of survival provides plenty of material for the film-maker to explore.
But it takes too long for the movie to settle in and the device of having some scenes presented like a play on stage - though meant to give the viewer a peek into Tetsu's head - also distances him from the story.
Fortunately, the cast is able enough to pull one back in.
Sakai is probably best known for his turn as the indefatigable titular banker in the popular television series Hanzawa Naoki (2013). Here, he is wound tight as Shujiro, with a smile so brittle he could snap at any moment.
Yoshinaga, a four-time Japan Academy Best Actress Award winner, is quietly affecting as the tenacious Tetsu, a woman who would do anything for her sons, but is permanently scarred by her missing husband.
As mother and son embark on their journey together, there are flashbacks to a past marked by intense cold and hunger as they scrabble to stay alive. Finally, there is the revelation of the fate of the older son Seitaro, whose glaring absence is an unanswered question hanging over the film.
Sakura Guardian takes its time to bloom, but eventually builds to a moving ending about the power of familial love.