More reconstruction than work of fiction, Ryoichi Kimizuka’s “Reunion” soberly chronicles a city’s attempt to deal with an overwhelming number of dead in the wake of Japan’s recent tsunami. Based on a reporter’s account, the pic focuses on town officials, doctors and medical workers suddenly confronted with a disorganized mass of unidentified corpses and grieving relatives at a middle school-turned-makeshift morgue. There wasn’t a dry eye in the largely Japanese house at Montreal fest screenings, but selling this elegiac procedural to foreign auds will require strong critical support.
At the center of the film stands Aiba (Toshiyuki Nishida), a retired funeral-home employee who volunteers at the local senior citizens’ center. Horrified by the treatment of the dead by harried rescue workers, themselves shaken by the enormity of the catastrophe (half the town has been swept away), Aiba slowly transforms chaos into order. He instructs handlers on how to massage limbs instead of breaking them when laying out bodies, and begs everyone involved to treat the deceased as though they were alive. He brings reverence and ritual to wholesale holocaust; apparently, at his old job, he spoke to unclaimed cadavers, a practice he continues here. Soon doctors, nurses and family members all start murmuring to the shrouded figures on the floor.
Aiba organizes the dead so they can be more readily identified, sees to the cleanliness of the mud-tracked floors and motivates officials to fix the town’s sole crematorium. Taking charge self-effacingly, with no hint of hierarchy or assumed chain of command, he teaches the clueless doctors, nurses and city officials how to fully cooperate and do their jobs in the face of crushing loss, breaking down barriers of age and class.
Helmer Kimizuka stays strictly within the perspective of the service providers, detailing their individual and collective responses. Though dazed and traumatized loved ones wander through the narrative, they become the responsibility of various members of the team. One woman, blaming herself for her daughter’s death, refuses to separate from her; the newly enlightened service workers allow her to sit beside the girl’s body day after day, and offer her blankets and comfort.
Kimizuka maintains a compassionate but somewhat distant reserve from his highly emotional subject. But as the logistical problems are resolved, a certain sentimentality steadily creeps in toward the end, heralded by the pic’s increasingly treacly score.