A Movie About Forgetting and Remembering

Reflections on the Japanese movie “A Hundred Flowers”

Last weekend, as part of the ongoing New York Asian Film Festival (NYAFF), I saw a Japanese film titled “A Hundred Flowers” from writer/director Genki Kawamura about a mother with early onset dementia and her son who bore the consequences of her illness and the underlying trauma of their situation throughout his childhood.

The movie reminds me that, to a child’s eyes, the world is the space their parents create. As a mother, Yuriko created a tumultuous, often dangerous, and disastrous environment for her son, Izumi. Yuriko filled Izumi’s childhood with pain that later his psyche would deem not worth remembering at all.

The movie’s theme of forgetting asks whether it can replace forgiving. Izumi believes this is his way of forgiving — his past was too painful to remember, and his delusion was not to remember any of it. He does not want to recall all of his mother’s failings. He equates this to forgiving her.

Yuriko starts to suffer from her illness when her memory starts disappearing like sand through a sieve. Her son, on the other hand, grapples with the act of forgetting as a coping mechanism for his traumatic childhood. Izumi has now grown into an adult and manages to live a somewhat normal life. He is now in a loving relationship with a woman who recently became his wife. He desperately tries to move on with his life, but he teeters between the future and trying to cut the strings that bind him to his past.

When Izumi’s wife becomes pregnant, his mother’s condition precipitously worsens—the moment Izumi faces his role changing from an adult into a parent. This role of parent he believed his mother ultimately failed to fulfill for him. Izumi becomes a caregiver to his ailing mother but apathetically plays this role for her. The audience can sense some resentment he is holding for her mother.

The movie plays with the idea of losing someone in a crowd — Izumi loses his mother in a crowd as she wanders off while watching fireworks, and he goes to search for her. Yuriko loses Izumi in a “crowd” of people she encounters sparked by her extra-marital love affair, which we later find out was caused by her failing memory. She left her life because she forgot; it took a literal earthquake for her to remember who she was and that she had a son, who she was searching for through the rubble.

The movie’s theme of forgetting brings the question of whether it is synonymous with forgiving. I believe Izumi somehow believed this way of forgiving — his past was too painful to remember, and his delusion was not to remember at all. He does not want to recall all of his mother’s failings. He thinks he has forgiven her.

In contrast, Yuriko has trouble retaining her memories. Yuriko can remember that she is a mother and knows she has failed her son somehow. She forgets exactly how.

The movie coalesces when Izumi starts to remember his past. These memories seemed inconsequential, like a mother-and-son moment of eating animal crackers together. He realizes some of the memories he forgot were happy ones.

Izumi later realizes his careless act of forgetting to overcome his childhood trauma has caused him to forget essential memories, memories that spoke of his mother’s love for him. He realizes he has happy moments and bad ones. And with the bad memories, what seemed like pure malice from her mother was due, in fact, to the consequences of her early deteriorating symptoms of memory loss.

Izumi starts to remember her mother’s love, scenes of them playing together, the little moments that showed him the full gravity of her love for him. The movie closes as Yuriko, a woman and a mother, loses all her memories like a light on a candle, dwindling to darkness. We find Izumi helping her move out of her apartment. He then finds a box containing so many notes her mother has hidden. Some notes are older, and others are new and include simple information such as his wife’s name and instructions for herself. She was trying to retain this information as it faded in her memory. She hid these notes from him all this time. Yuriko discovered that her mother was a shell of a woman who had always fought to remember.

Yellow was a meaningful color in the movie. We later realized that Yuriko used this color to symbolize her son. It is clear now why she always insists on having sunflowers at the table and why she always wears a yellow cardigan. She was using these little ways to remember her son, who was trying his best to forget her. In the end, her disease was a tidal wave, and she was getting swept under, but here was a mother who fought to stay afloat.