At some point in Peace, the filmmaker’s father-in-law is asked why someone acted in a certain way, to which he stoically replies something along the lines, you would need to ask them, because I don’t know and I don’t want to speculate. For me this was the most significant moment in Kazuhiro Sôda and Kiyoko Kashiwagi’s film, and although on the whole it left me with a great deal to reflect on, this was definitely the moment that will stay with me the most. Because it is said so kindly and with such humility, that it makes all of us – who would gladly rush to speculate – look bad. It is a moment that perfectly describes the benevolence and modestness of Japanese culture in general, and the unpretentiousness and warmth of Sôda’s documentary film Peace.
Kazuhiro Sôda films the regular everyday life of his wife’s parents, Toshio and Hiroko Kashiwagi, who have now retired but continue to work as social assistants. Each of them goes to cook for someone, take him out to the park, to the doctor’s or to buy shoes, every day, and then they booth relax and work on their house, clean, cook, feed the cats. It’s a beautiful, understatedly romantic life in which they take their time and do everything with such care that it ends up looking like some kind of a ritual to a Western viewer. They get paid nothing for their social work and, as the filmmaker himself remarked when I met him at this year’s Festival Dei Popoli in Florence, if they didn’t have their pension, it would be impossible for them to offer this considerable helping hand.
But then again this kind of work would only be generously rewarded in a world where each and every human being was valued equally and where human life was treasured and handled with respect. We sure have come a long way from the 2-cent men that Shiro Hashimoto talks about, however. Shiro, the most incredible subject to have ever been filmed in a documentary, is a 91-year-old man World War II veteran, now assisted in his little home by Hiroko, and telling stories, reflecting on his long-awaited death and life in general. It is there, in his one-room home that he mocks the lack of value of human life. He remembers men during the war being worth 2 cents – the price of the card the government would need to send their family. None of this oh-but-he’s-my-only-son business that you hear about today, as he says with a grin.
How much of it is mockery and how much of it is to be taken seriously? I think that Shiro Hashimoto is all mockery and he’s brilliant at it too. He’s so self-deprecating and looks at everything as a massive joke. He wears a cat tie to go to the hospital and lights a cigarette the minute he’s out. He apologises to everyone for still being alive, and reassures them that he should be dead soon – he’s not sure what’s taking God so long, but he’ll get to him. Such a man is of course extremely popular with everyone, from the nurses and Hiroko, to the filmmaker and us, the viewers. He’s the perfect protagonist and watching him sit on his bed and talk about his life or sit on the pavement and smoke a cigarette is really all the entertainment we could ever ask for.
But speaking of entertainment, I should also mention one of the great characters that Toshio Kashiwagi goes to pick up with his taxi once a week to help with the shopping. Sôda films Toshio as he picks this man up from his house, at which point he announces that he needs new shoes. And so off they go, Toshio taking his client and Sôda taking us, shoe shopping. But this turns out to be quite hard and demanding patience, as the shoes that he needs are very specific and not any trainers pair would do. But Toshio keeps looking, offering suggestions and never losing his composure. He is not just driving this man back and forth, he is actively there, looking for the perfect shoes for him. What a moment this is in Peace – when they are both looking for the right shoes. What a comedy moment and life lesson – all in one.
Watch the trailer for Peace here:
Watch Peace – the full film – on Vimeo on Demand.