Cherry Blossoms grounds its story of loss, spiritual communion, and familial indifference in a catalog of imagery so hopelessly banal, and invests that imagery with such trite metaphoric significance (the titular flower, we’re told in no uncertain terms, is “the very symbol of impermanence”), that far from adding thematic heft to the rather slight narrative, the film’s soggy visuals end by reducing the plight of the grief-struck central figure to the stuff of overly prettified kitsch. Amid a panoply of flying birds, “spectacular” sunsets, ocean waves, and, in the final sequence, Mt. Fuji, there’s little room for anyone to breathe.
The film’s first section is a self-conscious aping of Tokyo Story and as much as one would like to ignore this point of comparison-it does neither film any favors-writer-director Doris Dörrie keeps rubbing our nose in it. It’s not just a question of the narrative similarities (in both films, an aging rural couple goes to visit their children in the city and find that their presence is a burden), or specific correspondences of incident (both couples take a trip to the seaside and are prevented from sleeping by loud revelers), but of the repetition of certain stylistic touches as well. In an unfortunate bit of miscalculation, Dörrie attempts to incorporate Ozu’s famed pillow shots into her visual scheme, inserting a series of fixed images of unpeopled settings between scenes as a counterpoint to the action. But whereas the Japanese filmmaker has both an unerring eye for composition and a sense of how to integrate these shots into an organic whole, Dörrie’s kitsch-inflected visuals stand out as little more than self-conscious efforts at image-making. So when Rudi Angermeier’s wife dies during their stay by the Baltic Sea, the director can only cut to a dull shot of the waves, chopped up with slow-motion processing, to symbolize the passing of a life.
Things get marginally better in the film’s second half, when the newly widowed Rudi goes to Japan to stay with one of his sons. A staid man who never ventured far from home, Rudi seethes with regret at preventing his wife from living her dream of visiting Tokyo. But seizing on the totemic potential of the dead woman’s sweater, which he wears underneath his jacket, he begins “showing her Japan” in an imagined communion with the dead, a communion encouraged by an 18-year old Butoh dancer whom he befriends in the park. Unfortunately, this spiritual journey plays out against two equally reductive visual representations of Tokyo: When a bewildered Rudi first arrives in the swarming metropolis, Dörrie envisions the city as a teeming mass of urban fluster; and from the series of overhead shots revealing an endless succession of buildings to on-the-ground footage representing a maze of neon lights and sex club barkers, Rudi initially registers the city as an ultra-modern hellhole.
But acquiring a little familiarity with Tokyo, the man begins spending his time in the park, a cherry-blossom-strewn Eden where dancers with white face makeup and traditional costume cavort; in other words, a classical Japanese counterpoint to the city’s ruthless modernity. Dörrie’s twinned conception of the city, though, never transcends the dialectical: Between the two opposed terms there remain few points of contact. Embracing the impermanence symbolized by the blossoms, “communicating” with his dead wife through the guidance of the young dancer, Rudi is granted a spiritual consummation, enacted in a moment of look-at-me splendor in front of Japan’s tallest mountain. Meanwhile, his son, locked into the relentless grind of the Tokyo business world, is never glimpsed apart from his urban jungle environment. Dörrie’s preference is clear enough; unfortunately, in her incapable hands, both options register as equally banal; couched as they are in trite visuals, they never feel like anything more than occasions for the director to spin off a series of “pretty” shots, betraying that lack of aesthetic imagination that ultimately dooms such an image-heavy film to failure.