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The past comes back to haunt and heal in Japanese drama “A Chorus of Angels”, directed by Sakamoto Junji (“Children of the Dark”) and based on the work by bestselling author Minato Kanae, whose “Confessions” was recently brought to the screen in stunning fashion by Nakashima Tetsuya. Adapted from the short story “Ni-jyu Nian Go no Shyukudai” from the “Oufuku Shokan” collection, the film revolves around the relationship between a former teacher and her now-grown up students, who are bound together by a dark secret. The film is particularly notable for the presence of actress Yoshinaga Sayuri, a legend in the industry and hugely popular since her teen roles back in the 1960s for the Nikkatsu studio, backed here by an impressive cast of younger talent, including Miyazaki Aoi (“In His Chart”), Mitsushima Hikari (“Love Exposure”), Koike Eiko (“Penance”), Mirai Moriyama (“The Drudgery Train”) and Matsuda Ryuhei (“Phone Call to the Bar”). The film was a big hit with the critics, winning multiple awards and nominations at the 2013 Awards of the Japanese Academy.
The film opens with Yoshinaga Sayuri as Haru, a librarian working in Tokyo and on the verge of retirement, who used to work as a teacher on snowy Hokkaido. After receiving a visit by police informing her that one of her former students called Nobuto (Mirai Moriyama) is wanted for murder, she decides to return to the island to try and uncover the truth. Visiting her old pupils one by one, starting with park worker Manami (Mitsushima Hikari), painful memories resurface relating to the death of her husband and an incident which resulted in her leaving. Haru is shocked to find that her students’ lives have all been affected in one way or another by the events of the past, and that they are still harbouring feelings of grief, guilt and abandonment, pushing her to confront long buried trauma.
Though they have some thematic similarities and deal with difficulties in student-teacher and inter-generational relationships, “A Chorus of Angels” is very different to “Confessions”, moving towards healing rather than self-destruction. The film has a fairly basic narrative structure, progressing through flashbacks as Haru meets her students and hears their revelations, and is an involving and heartfelt mix of humanistic drama and mystery. Sakamoto Junji goes for patient pacing, slowly but effectively providing pieces of the puzzle while at the same time developing the characters and exposing their many secrets and psychological scars. Though it does get a little melodramatic in places, in particular during some of the flashback sequences involving Haru organising her students into the chorus of the title, the film is never too over the top, and builds towards a highly satisfying conclusion, and one which doesn’t shy away from harshness.
To quite a large extent, it’s Yoshinaga Sayuri’s film, as she appears in almost every scene, and holds the plot together both emotionally and narratively, her students revolving around her in both the past and present. She delivers a very impressive and controlled turn, and ensures that Haru is a fascinating and multi-layered protagonist, whose character changes through the film as the viewer learns more about her and about her mistakes and failed responsibilities. The younger cast are very much in her shadow, both the child actors and those playing the 20-something grown up students, though all are solid, and the feeling that they are deferring or are in awe of the quietly commandeering Yoshinaga fits the film’s story and themes well.
Almost a character in its own right is the island of Hokkaido, its snowy landscapes brought to subtly beautiful life by cinematographer Kimura Daisuku, who well deserved his Best Cinematography prize at the Awards of the Japanese Academy. Shot on location and under wintry conditions, the film has a fantastically naturalistic look, with countless moments of gorgeous bleakness which perfectly reflect the characters’ repressed emotions and torments. Sakamoto’s direction unsurprisingly makes full use of this, the camera often sitting back and allowing the viewer to take in the landscape through frequently long, still shots, making the film an atmospheric as well as moving experience.
Though it does require a certain amount of patience, “A Chorus of Angels” is a poignant and rewarding film that’s affecting without being patronising or too clichéd. By turns tragic and hopeful, it’s anchored by Yoshinaga Sayuri’s powerful performance in the lead, which her many fans will no doubt find very enjoyable indeed.
Junji Sakamoto (director) / Kanae Minato (novel), Machiko Nasu (screenplay)
CAST: Ryô Katsuji