While Emiko Hiramatsu is a rather unknown name as a director, one might know her as co-screenwriter on many of Yoji Yamada’s recent narratives (“Kabei, Our mother” (2006), “What a Wonderful Family” (2016), “What A Wonderful Family 2” (2017)). With “Organ”, her second full-length feature, Emiko Hiramatsu takes the responsibility, both as screenwriter and as director, to frame a true war-time story.

Organ” is screening at the Toronto Japanese Film Festival

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Kaede Itakura (Erika Toda) is a senior child-care provider of a so called ‘war-time daycare’. While the safety of the children is of extreme importance to her, the fact that the war-time economy – weapons over words – hinders the true goal of child-care, the nurturing of the children’s sensibility in a cultural environment, affects her just as much.

When Shigeru Wakimoto (Naoki Tanaka), a childhood education researcher and owner of Togoshi daycare center arrives, he doesn’t have good news – the ministry of health and welfare wants pregnant women to be evacuated before the young children. But Kaede does not want to wait on that, and together with Mitsue Nonomiya (Sakurako Ohara), they persuade some parents to allow them to evacuate the children from Tokyo to Saitama.

The narrative of Organ is simple and is told in a straightforward way. The general set-up of the narrative – i.e. the evacuation – is, for instance, laid bare in the very opening minutes of the film. As there are no real plot-twists and no true character-development in this narrative, “Organ reveals itself as nothing other than a straightforward humanistic tale of a war-time evacuation daycare center through the position of two women: Kaede, the senior childcare provider, and Mitsue, a starting childcare provider.

While the story is set in wartime Japan, one should not except the narrative to frame the reality of the war in an explicit way. Even so, the setting of wartime Japan is still brought to life in a decent way. The decency is not so much caused by the wartime costumes, the streets, or the framing of the reality of air-raids – i.e. the evocation of the shaking caused by the air-raids – but by making the mentality of those times present. Some villagers underline that, within a wartime-economy, young children, irrespective of the fact they might be the soldiers of tomorrow, are seen as non-producers, as consuming burdens on an economy supporting the war. At a later moment, “Organ” also reveals the fact that, at that time, many Japanese men still considered women as second-rank citizens – and as dangerous due to their seductive ‘nature’.

The choice of not showing the war in a too direct manner in order to contextualize the narrative, does create a fundamental problem. As the war is generally shown indirectly and its impact only spoken of (like the presence of death for example), the spectator is never able to truly feel the urgency and the necessity of the evacuation. Despite some imagery of the impact of the war, there is no true negativity sensibly lingering throughout the narrative, a negativity that would enable the positivity (e.g. the hope) shine in a more profound moving way.  

Even if the narrative lacks the framing of the real of the war, it does not lack light-hearted and subtle touching moments. In truth, it is littered with these moments. Note that much of the lightheartedness finds its origin in Mitsue’s clumsy and slightly childish nature, a nature of course only revealed in relation to others. In truth, Mitsue’s function – a function beautifully realized by Ohara – is largely limited to providing, by framing her struggles and the pleasure she has, light-hearted moments for the narrative. The ability to subtly touch the spectator is generally born from the adorable way by which the children express their carefree and loving nature and their honest manner of interacting with the adults that surround them. Of course, the narrative tries – as the air-raids take victims and draft-papers are delivered – to stage emotionally moving moments, but these moments are never able to fully realize their moving potential. This failure logically leads to a narrative that is not able to realize its true goal.

The cinematography of “Organis a rather fixed affair – offering a concatenation of fixed shots, with only sporadically subtle fluid movement or moving shots thrown into the mix. The narrative spaces may be framed with a standard cinematography, but the true highlight of the framing is to be found at the level of colour and lighting. The narrative spaces are, for the greater part, marked by a subtly yellowish filter – a filter, due to its associations with aging film, subtle empowering the framing of the war-period as such. Near the end of the film, the sudden fading of the colour scheme – the warmth extracted from the narrative space as the reality of war comes closer – helps communicate the desperation that subtle seeped into the minds of the daycare providers. The beauty of the lighting, a soft lighting supportive of the naturalistic tendency present in the cinematography, is especially sensible in the many night-time scenes.

While the function of narrating voice is, first and foremost, to give some contextualization to the narrative’s structure, one should not fail to see that the voice also supports the cinematographic flow. By introducing information, e.g. the financial support they receive and the uneasiness about not finding a good evacuation place, … etc., that would otherwise be difficult to frame as such, Hiramatsu evades disrupting the flow by which the narrative is told.    

The performance of Erika Toda is a pleasant surprise. For an actress mostly known for her more subtly comical performances (often in live-action narratives), she truly succeeds in bringing the personality of her character in a mature and captivating way to life. While her maturation as an actress was already evident in “The Emperor in August” (2015), we’re glad to see she confirms her progress with her performance in “Organ”.

“Organ” is a narrative that, when all is said and done, fails to realize its potential to move the spectator. The reason for this failure is easy to pinpoint. In an attempt to attract a broad audience, it became too straightforward and too safe. By failing to evoke the war as a sensible presence, the narrative lacks the dramatic background that would have made the humanistic positivity a true moving experience. While many spectators will enjoy the lighthearted and endearing moments littered throughout the movie, the enjoyment to be had is too mundane, too mundane to evoke the beauty of what happened in the final years of the war.