Aging novelist Haru lives alone, deep in some woods in Nagano prefecture where he is isolated from society. As he is the last of his family he is writing a book about his childhood life especially about the deep bond he shared with his mother.
This is a very good drama about a man who was damaged by his parents when he was a child especially by his mother who was so dedicated to him in every way that as an adult he is emotionally stunted and incapable of holding a proper relationship with another female as they cannot hold a torch to the dear mother he worshipped so much. Many critics have commented that the movie is based on the director’s own life although he has never said whether this is true or not. The story is a simple one. It alternates between Haru’s childhood and the present time. The viewer follows the life of Haru’s family as is it torn apart by rising debts after the war. Haru is born when his mother is 41 years old. The youngest of 6 kids, he is still suckling his mother’s breasts which she offers to him when he is 10 years old which is disturbing in itself. Their relationship whilst very loving could even be construed as being slightly incestuous. In his spare time he is out playing in the fields near his home with his sister closest to his age where they imagine by throwing sandals in the air that bats will swoop down from the sky to try and catch the sandal. He is seen to be enjoying life with his family. The father though is a very strange man. Cold, emotionless and distant who always has a blank expression on his face, he doesn’t seem to have any proper relationship with his wife and kids. It is left to his wife to keep the family together when things suddenly go bad for them as debts start to mount up. He either can’t (it’s possible he is mentally ill) or is unwilling to help the family in their crisis even when bailiffs turn up at the house. I found him to be a very selfish and arrogant bastard. The siblings all go their seperate ways in order to try and stave off the debtors but it’s a futile gesture. Eventually Haru, his mother and father move into a small outbuilding and we witness their house being torn down piece by piece. It’s heartbreaking to see the family ancestral home being ripped apart which could have been avoided had the father let his eldest son settle the debt. When Haru is 11 years old, his mother dies and he is left alone and penniless with his father. The father as always shows no hint of emotion when his wife dies. Obviously his father’s odd behaviour has rubbed off on Haru as we witness the same kind of strange behaviour when he’s an adult. Reminiscing on his daily walks, an attractive female jogger passes him by. Any normal man would probably acknowledge or even look at the woman but Haru carries on walking as if he’s lost in his own world. He keeps hearing his mother calling for him to return home as she did when he was a child.
There are one or two moments in this movie which shocked me. Maybe the scenes in question didn’t make anybody bat an eyelid in Japan as their culture is different from mine. The first scene revolves around Haru and his mother sharing a tub to have a bath. He is standing up whilst she is sitting down. She leans over and gives Haru a kiss on his penis! He seems to think this is normal affection. I must stress there is no hint of sexual intent in the scene whatsoever. It’s one of those moments in which you keep thinking to yourself ‘did I really just see that?’ but there’s no doubt that it does happen when the scene is repeated later on in slow motion. Another scene which surprised me was seeing Haru’s sister who’s probably not much older than 11 or 12 years old completely topless whilst she and Haru are fishing in a river.
The acting is universally good from all the cast and there’s even a small 10 min cameo from the wonderful Meiko Kaji. Her role is that of a hiker who brings some goods from Tokyo over to Haru at his isolated house in the woods and stays over for a night at his place. You would think he would be a jovial host to his guest but all he can do is talk about his mother. When she wakes up the following morning she finds Haru sitting up in his bedroom staring into the distance. It sums up how we see Haru throughout the movie in his adult life.
Director Kaneto Shindo does a very good job on this production. The movie is beautifully shot in black and white and the cinematography is excellent.
I found Tree Without Leaves to be a fascinating movie about a psychologically damaged man who is contemplating his own mortality and longs for his mother who placed him as the centre of her life when she was still alive. For those that want to see something a little different from the norm, it’s definitely a movie worth seeing.
Sadako’s Rating: 3.5 stars out of 5