Maverick director Gen Takahashi’s gentle, earnest drama tells the true story of a man’s determined quest to create a universal symbol of peace.

Photo courtesy of JCCC


Yoko the Cherry Blossom (2015)

Director / Screenplay: Gen Takahashi Starring: Takashi Sasano, Koji Matoba, Maki Miyamoto, Naomi Hase and Hironobu Nomura
Running time: 115 minutes

The true story of a Japanese rural high school teacher’s lifelong quest to create the first artificially pollinated hybrid cherry blossom, to fulfill a promise he made to his beloved students before they were sent off to die on the battle fields in World War II.

“Masaaki away over 30,000 trees to countries around the world  in his quixotic campaign to spread peace.”

The significance of cherry blossoms in Japanese life can-not be overstated. They are ubiquitous in haiku poetry, traditional woodblock prints and scrolls; Starbucks Japan even offers a Cherry Blossom Frappuccino. In April the media obsesses over the sakura zensen, a forecast of the progress of cherry blooms as flowers open across the archipelago. They are the ultimate manifestation of the fundamental Japanese concept of mono no aware—the sensitivity to and appreciation of the ephemeral nature of things.To Masaaki Takaoka, a rural high school teacher in the mid-20th century, they were also a symbol of universal peace, and he dedicated his life to creating a hybrid that could bloom anywhere in the world. Yoko the Cherry Blossom, based on a true story, tells of Masaaki’s strange fixation.

It’s the time of World War II, and, as Japan’s defeat becomes imminent, Masaaki’s beloved students are ordered to join the imperial forces’ last-ditch efforts. Masaaki bids them farewell with the promise that, upon their return, they will all reunite under the sakura on the school grounds; this despite knowing the odds of their survival are negligible.

One student does return, maimed and full of shame, with news that all his classmates have perished in battles across the Pacific and in foreign lands. Overcome by guilt, Masaaki goes on a lifelong quest to fulfill his promise.

Over the next three decades, he obsessively strives to create a new strain of sakura that can blossom anywhere, in any climate, so that the spirits of his students will have a place to meet.

Yoko the Cherry Blossom is a small, understated and quietly moving film written and directed by Gen Takahashi. Takahashi is a true independent whose work consistently reflects a profound distrust for Japan’s institutions. His Confessions of a Dog is an epic indictment of police corruption while The Court of Zeus questions the ethicality of the Japanese court system. Though not immediately apparent, Yoko shares a similar theme: the innocent crushed by a heartless, immoral institution, in this case a generation carelessly squandered in the misguided pursuit of military glory.

Masaaki is played by Takashi Sasano—a prolific character actor you have seen in supporting roles in everything from Thermae Romae to Yoji Yamada’s Samurai Trilogy. Takahashi gives this talented actor the opportunity to shoulder the mantle of the film and is rewarded with a performance that finds a delicate balance between inty obsession and melancholy stoicism.

The film only falters when Sasano is not on screen and some domestic scenes suffer from a forced whimsicality. Sasano’s son Shota ably plays Masaaki in the wartime scenes as a young high school teacher.

Masaaki died at age 92, having given away over 30,000 trees to countries around the world as a symbol of world peace. He drew his final breath on September 10, 2001; the following day the world received a stark reminder that no amount of blossoms is enough to counter man’s predilection for violence and hatred.

The JCCC will present a free screening of the film on Thursday, October 26, at 7 pm.