An outstanding perf and a methodically constructed script about the early onset of Alzheimer’s disease makes Japanese meller “Memories of Tomorrow” an emotionally gripping experience. Executive produced by lead thesp, 2004 Oscar-nommed Ken Watanabe (“The Last Samurai,” “Memoirs of a Geisha”) pic pulses with firm conviction and gentle sincerity. For Western auds, opening reels may seem a tad melodramatic, but by journey’s end there won’t be a dry eye in the house. Subject is a tough sell, but fests seeking solid drama should take note. Local release last May garnered strong B.O. in the face of robust competition.
In 2010, a slack-jawed, glassy-eyed Masayuki Saeki (Watanabe) sits staring at a glorious rural sunset with his wife Emiko (Kanako Higuchi) by his side. Image is sadly comforting, and because of what follows, auds will need all the reassurance they can get.
Flashback to 2004 and Saeki is a 49-year-old, slave-driving, self-obsessed advertising exec and all-around tough nut, whose perfectionist ways have snared a huge new account for his company.
On the home front, Saeki is little better. Meeting his future son-in-law Naoya (Kenji Sakaguchi) for the first time, Saeki is rude and unwelcoming, and bluntly rebuffs his daughter Rie (Kazue Fukiishi) for becoming pregnant outside of wedlock.
Always in control, some initial lapses in memory on Saeki’s part, like missing a turn-off on Tokyo’s labyrinthine road system, or being unable to remember the actor who starred in the Tokyo-hosted world premiere of “Titanic” (he guesses “Dick Caprio”), are dismissed as minor details. However, when the exacting exec starts forgetting scheduled meetings, even Saeki has to admit that something is awry.
Emiko manages to persuade him to go to a doctor, whose simple-minded questions Saeki finds humiliating. When the diagnosis confirms that despite his relative youth, the salaryman is in the early stages of Alzheimer’s disease, his worst fears are realized and Saeki flips out.
Saeki’s doctor rebuffs the idea of suicide by holding out for hope of improved medicines and scientific breakthroughs — although scene will make Western auds cringe for the doctor’s over-the-top speechifying.
But yarn balks at sugar-coating Alzheimer’s and its associated problems. Rather with a deliberateness that is intentionally excruciating, pic systematically shows how, both at work and at home, one disturbing omission at a time, the disease wears down the resolve of those who have the illness thrust upon them and those who must live in its wake.
Finale stops short of the bitterest of ends, but yarn successfully tugs the heartstrings as the once-powerful man becomes completely dependent on others.
Pic smartly declines to push too hard for advertising exec’s behavioral redemption. Instead, the fact that Saeki remains prideful and pig-headed throughout is one of the things that makes the film an honest experience and Watanabe’s perf such a compelling triumph.
In a role that could be a movie in its own right, Higuchi delivers an equally impressive turn as Saeki’s stoic, long-suffering wife Emiko. Distaff thesp successfully balances the inevitable fear and the required resourcefulness of a woman faced with an unraveling husband and the daunting prospect of finding full employment for the very first time.
Tsutsume’s direction is reliably steady on the whole, but in scenes where he wants to thrust auds into the midst of Saeki’s psychological disorientation, helmer deftly throws in some flamboyant moves. Lensing for urban scenes is mostly a mixture of blues and grays, keeping richer colors for rural locations.
Some clever and subtle CGI effects enhance pic’s early flashback transition and other tech credits are of high quality.