Updated 2 June 2007
Editor's Note: In its original version, posted 1 June 2007, this film review
contained errors that were introduced during the editing. They were not the author's
mistakes. Please find the corrected version below.—Gabrielle Strobel.
A Film About Dementia, Reviewed by a Person With Dementia
This seems to be the year for Alzheimer's in the cinema. Julie Christie is winning
rave reviews and there is early talk of a Best Actress nomination for her performance
as a woman with Alzheimer's in Away From Her. And on 30 May, the Japanese
film Memories of Tomorrow
had its Los Angeles premiere at a benefit for the Little Tokyo Service Center and
the Alzheimer's Association Southland Chapter.
Since receiving my own diagnosis in June 2006, I watched the PBS documentary The
Forgetting about Alzheimer's but have not seen any narrative films about
the disease. Variety, where I once worked as managing editor for four years, published
positive review about Memories of Tomorrow. Another reason I wanted
to see this award-winning movie is that I am 49 years old, and lead actor Ken Watanabe's
character is also 49 when he is diagnosed with Alzheimer's. If art weren't imitating
life enough already, prior to the start of the feature last Wednesday, the Alzheimer's
Association ran its own short promotional film and about halfway through there was
my image on the screen, identified as "Early Memory Loss Patient." So I first get
to see myself as an Alzheimer's patient and then watch a movie about an Alzheimer's
patient. Both 49.
The similarities don't end there. Without giving away much of the plot, Watanabe
plays a hard-driving advertising executive in Japan who works his employees equally
hard. The first time we see him falter is when he has trouble recalling a name in
a phone conversation. Then, we watch as he has increasingly more trouble with his
memory, with confusion, with his mood, with reality. Considering that the story
is condensed to a 2-hour running time, it is a surprisingly unflinching depiction
of what this feels like.
No two cases are exactly alike. There is a saying, "When you've met one Alzheimer's
family, you've met one Alzheimer's family." The same is true of an Alzheimer's patient.
But watching Watanabe's character experience the panic of realizing he is late when
he has never been late before, or being lost in a place that he knows like the back
of his hand, got as close to the bone as any movie-going experience I've ever had.
For me, the film gets it exactly right on the hell and the horror of what this feels
like. Everyone's experience is unique, and some might feel that it doesn't portray
dementia the way they know it. No movie, no play, no book can do that. Western audiences
might also be a bit thrown by some of the Japanese customs. What is universal, however,
is how the filmmakers have been able to show the process from the start of the unraveling
and then let it progress.
One other uncomfortable moment for me was watching the administration of a mental
status exam. When the neurologist placed five objects on a desk, asked Watanabe's
character Saeki to remember them, and then covered them up, I couldn't remember
one of the objects that had been displayed. Neither could Saeki.
Watanabe, who was on hand for Wednesday night's screening, is probably best known
in the U.S. for his roles in Letters From Iwo Jima, Memoirs of a Geisha,
and The Last Samurai. In his remarks, he said that his family had not been
touched by Alzheimer's. That made the depth and complexity of his portrayal all
the more remarkable. Enough can't be said also for the parallel storyline about
Saeki's wife Emiko. As a woman who sublimated herself to her husband and his career,
Emiko tries to care for him in their home while trying to make a living to support
them both. Actress Kanako Higuchi's Emiko has a quiet dignity and stoicism without
reducing the character of "dutiful wife" to that of a stereotype. I am struck by
how right this film gets the Alzheimer's experience. As someone with a diagnosis
of early-stage AD, the film was as close as it could be to my experience. I think
the film would give someone without this diagnosis as close an approximation to
having AD as is possible.—Richard Bozanich.
Richard Bozanich lives in Los Angeles, California.