Saturday 9 March 2024

The Parades | review by Stephen Theaker

After a huge earthquake hits Japan, a 35-year-old single mother and journalist, Minako (Masami Nagasawa), drowns in the subsequent tsunami. Not that she realises at first. She wakes up on a beach strewn with wreckage and of course her first thought is to find Ryo, her seven-year-old son. Rescue workers ignore her questions. So do survivors, and a colleague from work. The first person to acknowledge her is her colleague’s daughter – because the little girl died too. Later, as Minako searches through the rubble, a young man, Akira (Kentarô Sakaguchi), calls to her from his van. He can see her, and she can touch his arm. She’s in such a state that he offers her a lift to where he is staying, a cosy outdoor bar in a little fairground in the middle of nowhere. He tells her it’s a gathering place for people like them, by which he means those who died with regrets and aren’t ready to move on.

There she meets four others who seem to be in the same boat, and her five new friends gently break the news that she is dead, news she takes quite badly. Although she never stops searching for news of her son, she starts to get involved in their afterlives, after telling them off for lazing around the bar. Michael (Lily Franky) is a filmmaker who didn’t finish a film about his first love, a political activist, and how he let her down. Kaori, the older woman who runs the bar, misses her children, and wanted to meet an imminent grandchild. Akira is working on a book about their new state of being, and regrets letting his father down. Shori, a young male yakuza, has been there for seven years, and worries about his girlfriend and his dad. Tanaka is a quiet ex-banker.

This is a fairly slow film, and so episodic that it almost feels like the omnibus edition of a television programme, each person’s unfinished business taking its turn to be explored. I expected it to be quite bleak, given the subject matter, but instead it has the look and feel of a long summer holiday evening, as they eat, drink, sing and read at the bar, visit their own little cinema, walk on the beach, sleep in lovely holiday huts, and help Michael to resume work on his film. (The latter element takes up a surprisingly large amount of the film, which may be explained by the film being dedicated to “Michael”.) Once a month a bell rings and they join others of their kind on the late-night parades of the title, which give the ghosts a chance to find their loved ones, if they have died too, and move on together. It’s a very human, mundane afterlife.

I’ve always thought the idea of ghosts being created when people die with unfinished business was a bit daft, since almost everybody dies that way, especially those caught in a disaster like the one that kills Minako. This film uses the concept as a hook to explore the past lives and relationships of these characters, and doesn’t prod at the premise as much as I would have liked. When a bullied schoolgirl, Nana, arrives at the bar, having cut her own wrists, I was greatly moved by her realisation that her best friend was now left to face the bullies alone, but disappointed that her desire to kill the bullies as a ghost wasn’t explored; she was just told she couldn’t do it, rather than, say, becoming a vengeful spirit. The film has zero interest in exploring any horror themes.

Its characters aren’t protagonists. They can’t do anything but observe, and learn from what they observe, and come to peace with everything. It’s the afterlife as a therapy session. One odd aspect is that everything they interact with – the food they eat, the books they read, the films they watch, the drinks they drink – are their own creations. If they wanted, they could be flying in jetpacks, living in a space-age utopia. Instead they wear the same clothes every day and mull over their sadness. Perhaps that’s precisely because they can’t move on, and the jetpacks will come later. I wanted to know more about the mechanics of their world, for example why the living disappeared when touched by a ghost, but again, that’s not what the film is about. What it does do, it does very well, and I thought the ending was particularly excellent. Stephen Theaker ****

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