Early-Onset Familial AD: A Film About Dementia

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 Tomorrowhad 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 a positive review aboutMemories 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.