Japanese films about dementia are by now many and, given demographic trends here, interest in the subject is both natural and necessary.
But as seen in “A Long Goodbye,” Ryota Nakano’s drama about a family dealing with the dementia of its once-proud patriarch, dementia has also become a common device for having extracting audience tears. Not that the film, which stars Tsutomu Yamazaki as the patriarch, is a standard weepie. In fact, its subtitle could be “the lighter, brighter side of Alzheimer’s.”
Based on Kyoko Nakajima’s novel, the film portrays every stage of its hero’s disease, from beginning to end. A retired middle school principal who was once an omnivorous reader, Shohei Higashi (Yamazaki) is early on reduced to staring uncomprehendingly at the pages of a favorite book — and finally eating one in a half-conscious attempt to retain something.
But the predominant tone, underscored by the wistful, endlessly repeated piano theme, is one of sweet sadness with the emphasis on “sweet.” The pains and burdens of dementia, from the physical explosions of the afflicted to the psychological exhaustion of the caregivers, are softened, if not elided.
When Shohei goes wandering one day, his wife, Yoko (Chieko Matsubara), and his adult daughters Mari (Yuko Takeuchi) and Fumi (Yu Aoi) launch a frantic search — and find him by a nearby river, together with his grandson and a guy who was Fumi’s former classmate. Sitting side by side, they suck on popsicles in unison. How cute.