Tuesday, January 21, 2014

A Chorus of Angels (orig. Kita no kanaria-tachi) [2012]

MPAA (UR would be PG-13)  JapanTimes (2 Stars)  Fr. Dennis (3 Stars)

IMDb listing
AsianWiki listing

JapanTimes (M. Schilling) review

A Chorus of Angels (orig. Kita no kanaria-tachi) [2012] [IMDb] [AW] (directed by Junji Sakamoto [IMDb] [AW], screenplay by Machiko Nasu [IMDb] [AW], based on the novel by Kanae Minato [IMDb] [AW]) is an award-winning Japanese film that I've seen recently.  I write about it here not only because there aren't that many Japanese films that play out here in Chicago, but also because I found it surprisingly "Christian" both on a superficial level (a lot of the story takes place in what appears to be a Christian school) and arguably on a thematic one (in Christian parlance this film seems to be definitely about "the wages of sin").

Now I could honestly be far off-base.  It could be that elementary schools across Japan hold Christmas concerts and most Americans would consider Japan to have at least traditionally been a very "honor-shame" culture.  Hence it would not have required the introduction of Catholicism (with the arrival of the St. Francis Xavier, S.J. to Nagasaki in the 1500s) or Protestant Christianity (in the years following the arrival of American Commodore Perry in Tokyo Bay two hundred years later) to Japan to inculcate a sense of moral revulsion toward adultery and especially (as has been the case elsewhere across the world) adultery on the part of a woman.

So it could just be coincidental that Kanae Minato [IMDb] [AW]'s novel made here into a film was about a former elementary school teacher named Haru Kawashima (played in the film by Sayuri Yoshinaga [IMDb] [AW]) who used to lead a children's choir in a Christmas concert at the school where she taught on a small island off the coast of the Japanese northern home island of Hokkaido before being forced to leave the school and the small island in disgrace after being caught carrying-on an extramarital affair even as her husband was dying of cancer.  (Note that in the story, the husband (played by Kyohei Shibata [IMDb] [AW]) himself seemed to be ambivalent with regards to her having the affair as he knew he was dying and both of them were young and he did want her to be happy afterwards.  BUT the outside community could not understand at all...)

However, at least the English titles of a fair number of Kanae Minato's* works [IMDb] [AW] [Amazon] repeatedly evoke Catholic/Christan (or at least generally religious) themes -- Confession, Penance, Atonement, Clergy -- even as Confessions [2010] [IMDb] [AV] at least is quite violent tale of revenge (following a heinous crime) and her other works could be similarly only superficially (or even tangentially) inspired by Catholic/Christian concepts.

It would be a fascinating question to find out what influence, if any, has Christianity or Catholicism had on her work. In preparing to write this review, I've tried to find the answer from interviews of her online.  There are almost no interviews of her in English.  Japanese interviews of her (which I ran through google translate), where she's become something of a phenomenon as "the housewife turned award winning author," didn't broach the question.  And in Italy, where at least some of her books have already come out in translation, no one has apparently asked her this question either.  But perhaps the question will eventually be asked ;-).

But to the film ... 

The arc of the story here is a rather simple one:  Twenty years after Haru was forced to leave that idyllic little island for Hokkaido in disgrace, a police investigator comes by her retirement party (she found a job as a librarian in Hokkaido's main city of Sapporo) asking if she could help him better understand the behavior of a young man who had once been her student back when she taught at that school on the small island.  She remembered him to be precocious even if already somewhat "at risk" as a child.  He was now being accused of a murder on that island.  The police officer tells her that he had specifically mentioned her as someone who could shed some light on his case.

This news shakes her even as it comes at a time when she could actually be of some help.  She hadn't been back to that island in 20 years, but the student had been one of her favorites.  And so she decides to go back.

The rest of the story that follows is both remarkable and very, very sad.  She is repeatedly reminded of the hole that she left in the community and in the lives of the kids that she had taught when she FELL (due to her adultery) and had to leave the island.

I may be reading the film very superficially.  I know very little of Japanese culture (and would welcome insight into how this film was understood by Japanese viewers themselves.  Please comment if you would know).  But it seemed so clear to me that what was being portrayed here were the tragic/horrific effects of a single and often considered "simply" personal sin:  She committed adultery.  As a result she had to leave the community and the kids who trusted her.  And as a result EVERYONE of that community lost, most especially that little "at risk" boy who grew-up to fulfill a destiny that PERHAPS she could have helped him avoid.

Through her sin, she let down "A chorus of angels ..."  Wow.  How terribly, terribly sad.

* Foreign language webpages are most easily translated using Google's Chrome Browser. 

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  1. Hmmm last post over a year ago, hope you're still well and watching these wily oriental films in chilly Chicago....and any films that catch your fancy for that matter!

    It constantly surprises me the number of times in Korean and Japanese films and series that there is some scene(s) that reference Christian religion(s).

    Thanks for the detailed review.

  2. DOH, just saw that the link was "newer" not my misread of "newest". Good to see the blogging business still has you in its thrall.