A still from Yaeko's Hum. The film is based on the true story of a devoted husband caring for his wife who suffers from early-onset Alzheimer’s. Photo: Team Yaeko’s Hum

Like all fast-graying societies, Japan has not dodged the healthcare bullet. Estimates put the number of dementia sufferers in the country at 4.6 million – but with 65-and-overs expected to exceed 30% of the population by 2025, that will surely surge.

While the government has championed community-wide caregiving, the burden of funding and implementing much-needed initiatives has fallen on organizations at the local level.

Yet even with neighborhood watch networks, innovative daycare centers and millions of trained volunteer caregivers, there are simply not enough people involved.

Taking his inspiration from a true story, writer-director-producer Kiyoshi Sasabe means his new film as a wake-up call – a poignant argument against the outsourcing of Alzheimer’s care.

Director Kiyoshi Sasabe addresses the Foreign Correspondents’ Club in Tokyo about his new film. Photo: Mance Thompson

“Kindness is the best medicine,” says one of its protagonists, and Yaeko’s Hum amply demonstrates its healing properties, and its long-term effects on Yaeko’s quality of life and her dignity.

The film follows the broad outlines of a memoir of the same name by Nobutaka Minami, an educator who not only devoted himself selflessly to the care of his wife after she developed early-onset Alzheimer’s, but did so while undergoing a series of debilitating cancer operations himself.

Director Kiyoshi Sasabe (left) with co-stars Yoko Takahashi (center) and Takeshi Masu. Photo: Koichi Mori

Prior to the film’s Tokyo premiere on May 6, the director and his two stars, Takeshi Masu and Yoko Takahashi, appeared at a Q&A session following a sneak preview at the Foreign Correspondents’ Club in Tokyo.

About the film

A still from Yaeko’s Hum. Photo: Team Yaeko’s Hum

Yaeko’s Hum opens after Yaeko’s death, as Seigo Ishizaki (Takeshi Masu), a retired principal and school board director, addresses an avid crowd.

“I cared for my wife for 12 years,” he tells them. “We’d been married for 38 years, so that amounts to the last third of our life together.” Seigo continues to speak, and his memories come alive in a series of flashbacks, beginning with the first signs of Yaeko’s disease in 1989.

As her illness progresses, it takes a tremendous toll on her family, yet Seigo manages to remain impossibly patient through it all, despite grappling with his own health issues and continuing to work.

Yaeko (Yoko Takahashi) was once a music teacher, and she retains her love of song. As her Alzheimer’s worsens she can no longer remember the words, but she can hum them. Nothing calms her like hearing her favorite songs by Shinji Tanimura (of the 1980 hit Subaru/Star, later made popular by Teresa Teng).

But these are not easy years, and the film doesn’t gloss over the endless difficulties of home care – the diapers, the mood changes, the tantrums, the evaporation of romance from the loving couple’s relationship.

With the support of the couple’s two daughters, and eventually the entire community, Seigo tends to Yaeko’s needs, protects her dignity and extends her life as he bids her a “long farewell.”

The Q&A

Director Kiyoshi Sasabe says his own mother suffered from dementia before she passed away two years ago. Photo: Mance Thompson

Kiyoshi Sasabe: “I wrote a script eight years ago and initially planned to make it with a studio. But it’s about an elderly couple, about sickness and caregiving, and that does not sit well with younger audiences.

“So every major studio and TV station that I went to said no to the project. Then I lost my mother two years ago, and before she passed away, she suffered dementia herself.

“Whenever I talk with my contemporaries, the topic always seems to come around to ‘What do we do about our aging, ailing parents?’ I think this is a film that Japanese society needs. So I ultimately decided that I would raise the funds and make it independently.”

Yoko Takahashi plays retired music teacher Yaeko. Photo: Mance Thompson

Yoko Takahashi: “[Returning to acting after a 28-year break was] like getting back on a bicycle: once you learn, you never forget how to ride.

“It didn’t seem like a long hiatus to me. But when the director asked me to play the role, I did have to think twice. I didn’t have a lot of lines, and I would have to play this person who’s ailing. So I hesitated.

“With the issue of dementia, you often hear about people becoming increasingly irritable, about them wandering and essentially becoming troublemakers.

“But Mr Sasabe wanted me to make Yaeko charming [too], and that’s what really attracted me to the role. But it was a lot easier to play her when she’s aggressive.”

Takeshi Masu co-stars as a retired principal. Photo: Mance Thompson

Takeshi Masu: “To tell you the truth, I couldn’t figure out how to approach the role because it was so starkly different from my past roles.

“But when I went on set, Yoko-san was there as Yaeko, being really charming, and that helped me want to be as kind to her as possible.

“I played someone who starts at 40 and ages up to 80, so I [had] to carefully gauge how slowly to walk or to speak for each scene, so that it would all seem seamless when edited together.”

Sasabe: “I didn’t want to depict the harsh reality of caregiving. There are so many documentaries about that out there. I wanted to make a film about how love prevails.

“I wanted it to be a pure love story about this elderly couple, represented by the line, ‘There are limits to anger, but kindness is limitless.’ I want you to see this film as a sort of fantasy. I wanted to depict [Seigo] as a kind of superhero. It’s about dreams and about hope.”

Profiles

Kiyoshi Sasabe made his directorial debut in 2002 and has released such noteworthy titles as The Stars Converge, which received the Directors Guild of Japan New Directors Award in 2003; Half a Confession, which won the Japan Academy Prize for best picture in 2004; Sea Without Exit, Yunagi City, Sakura Country, The Legacy of the Sun, My SO Has Got Depression and Tokyo Refugees.

Takeshi Masu made his film debut in 1981 in Gaki Empire and has appeared in a vast range of film and television roles. His film resume includes Nin x Nin: Ninja Hattori-kun, the Movie, Summer Time Machine Blues, Go Find a Psychic! Perfect Blue and Peach Girl. He first worked with Kiyoshi Sasabe on Gunjoiro no Torimichi in 2015.

Yoko Takahashi made her memorable film debut in Koichi Saito’s Journey into Solitude in 1972, and appeared in Kei Kumai’s Sandakan 8 and Shuji Terayama’s Farewell to the Ark before publishing her first novel in 1981 and winning a newcomer award. She has published a dozen novels, and came out of her 28-year acting retirement for Yaeko’s Hum.

Where it’s on

The theatrical rollout begins May 6 in Japan. Look for it at Asian specialty festivals.

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