“Memories of Tomorrow” opens tomorrow at the ImaginAsian Theater in New York. It stars Ken Watanabe as Masayuki Saeki, a 49 year old “salaryman” who discovers that he is suffering from the early onset of Alzheimer’s disease. This is a classic plot found in the world’s great literature and film, from Tolstoy’s “Death of Ivan Ilyich” to Akira Kurosawa’s “Ikiru.” Unlike these two tales, which involve the impact of terminal cancer on two men’s lives, Alzheimer’s will necessarily introduce a different dynamic. If these two dramas involved a growing self-awareness, then “Memories of Tomorrow” necessarily proceeds in the opposite direction, since the disease ultimately results in a loss of self.
Masayuki Saeki is a successful, hard-driving advertising agency executive with a wife named Emiko (Kanaku Higuchi) and a daughter Rie (Kazue Fukiishi) who is about to be wed. They have everything they could possibly want, even though Masayuki’s monomaniacal work ethic tends to undermine the emotional bonds between him and his wife. As the disease progresses, the two begin to bond together as never before. I was reminded of a communication from a classmate from Bard, whose younger brother–also a Bardian and a good friend of mine–had died recently after a decades-long battle with schizophrenia:
Your reflections on what mental illness can do, and does to many who a moment ago felt they had a unique destiny is in this sense profoundly political. In Claude’s case, his suffering was punctuated by laughter, and the wisdom that blossomed from his struggle with a mind that he found he could not trust. He learned, instead, to trust his heart.
Masayuki also learns to “trust his heart”. Over a four year period, he loses more and more of his ability to carry out daily chores until he finally takes a day trip out to a nursing home in order to figure out whether he can adjust to life there. He doesn’t want to be a burden on his wife any longer.
Starring as Masayuki Saeki, Ken Watanabe is one of Japan’s best-known actors who has often worked in Hollywood films, including “The Last Samurai” and “Letters from Iwo Jima”. He brings an enormous sensitivity into the role, no doubt attributable to his own encounter recently with serious illness. Diagnosed with leukemia in 1989, he has fortunately been in remission. No doubt he understands what it means to live for the day.
Like Japan, the USA is a country where one’s identity is very much connected to one’s ability to earn a wage or make a profit. As bad as it is to lose one’s self-identity in one’s very advanced years, the early onset of Alzheimer’s can destroy not only the victim, but the family that depends on that person’s ability to produce income. In “Memories of Tomorrow,” the wife gets a good-paying job in an art gallery. For the average person, things might not turn out so well.
In one of the most powerful scenes in the film, Saeki’s physician talks him away from the edge of the hospital roof where he obviously is considering suicide. He understands what Alzheimer’s means, since his own father suffers from it. The doctor also explains that to live is to die. You can’t have one without the other. The only thing he can promise is that he will provide the medical attention he needs to enjoy his life for as long as he can.
There might never be a cure for some of the intractable diseases like Alzheimer’s, cancer or schizophrenia. All we can hope for is a society in which the love and support that Saeki’s wife demonstrates is manifested in society as a whole–in other words, a society that is based on production for human need rather than private profit.