A beautiful tissue-paper piece of art that falls to shreds should you so much as blow upon it, Dorris Dörrie’s Cherry Blossoms is the kind of film that dares you to laugh at it. There are heartfelt declarations of love and elaborate avant-garde dance routines, not to mention a major plot point about a mountain appearing from behind a veil of mist. Cynics: Don’t venture within one hundred meters. Romantics: Run, don’t walk, to the theater. Everybody else: Approach with caution.
Cherry Blossoms is a sentimental work about Rudi, a stick-in-the-mud German civil servant whose life is upended upon the sudden death of his wife, Trudi, whom he realizes too late he never quite knew. Yes, tears will be shed. But since this is a German film, much of which is set in Japan, the crying will be rather circumspect, and horribly embarrassed.
Rudi (Elmar Wepper) is the definition of the company man insistent upon working hard to avoid any variance in his day. Trudi (Hannelore Elsner) waits upon him quietly, their children long moved away. A not-so-closeted Japanophile, she takes dance classes (alone) and pines for travel and adventure. Receiving a terminal diagnosis from her doctor, Trudi talks Rudi into visiting their children in Berlin and going to the beach. But going to Tokyo, even to see their doted-on son Karl (Maximillian Brueckner), is just too much for him. So when Trudi dies, Rudi is left knowing that he kept her from the one adventure she truly wanted.
Even though primarily just setup for the life-shifting journey that Rudi takes, the early sections of Cherry Blossoms — showing just see how awful and neglectful the old couple’s self-obsessed children are — are by far its most effective. Dörrie keeps the emotions tightly cramped in these uncomfortable scenes where the parents and children barely even try to connect with each other. The scraping-nails tension is backlit by the momento mori of Trudi’s diagnosis, which infuses each loving glance at an oblivious Rudi. Dörrie masters the small gesture, bringing a potent emotionality even to such a simple shot as where Trudi reaches out from her bed and bats Rudi’s arm just so he’ll take her hand as they sleep. (Elsner’s evocative and slightly Asiatic elegance, contrasted with Wepper’s stolidity, bring an extra frisson to these scenes.)
This level of directorial precision — where the couple’s love is continually signaled by repeated shots of pairs, whether shoes, birds, or children — leads the film astray once Rudi alights in Tokyo. Ostensibly there to visit Karl (as inconsiderate of his parents as the others, only with highly uncomfortable mother), Rudi is actually there on a mission to show the departed Trudi the Japan she always dreamed of but never saw in person. His guilt over the latent discovery of Trudi’s desires (“We kept her locked up”) push Rudi into a grey, lost area. Unfortunately, this is also where the film becomes a little lost.
Though certainly romantic, the film’s earlier stretches are nevertheless grounded in the reality of family and married life. Once in Tokyo, Dörrie lets the film become as unhinged as Rudi. While this leads to some heartstopping moments of aesthetic delight (there is one shot of Mt. Fuji that could well make your heart skip a beat), there are also many others of hard-to-swallow artifice. The latter is particularly pronounced in Rudi’s blooming friendship with a homeless young girl who dances in the park, using an expressionistic style called butoh that Trudi just so happened to be obsessed with.
There are many final, grand, tearjerking gestures in Cherry Blossoms that would seem utterly ridiculous were the film never to have left Germany. But being in Japan seems to liberate Dörrie just as it does Rudi, not always to the betterment of the film. There’s a reason people fall in love when abroad; and are sometimes irritating when they come home and talk about it.