This sort-of documentary started as a short film that director Linda Ohama wanted to make about her grandmother (Asayo Murakami) for her 100th birthday. The title comes from the Japanese word for grandmother (obaachan), and from the fact that Ohama's grandmother had a large garden that she cherished for many years.
The documentary portion of the film was interesting and relatively well done. Ohama interviews her grandmother and others, and travels to where her grandmother lived in Japan and later in Canada. She combines this with photos and archival footage, and manages to unravel some deeply hidden mysteries. The film chronology follows the order than Ohama learns each fact, which works to maintain the mystery, but is perhaps less coherent than a truly chronological telling. The quality of the archival footage is generally poor, while the modern day footage is better but still looks like video, despite the fact that the program indicates 35mm film.
The real problem, however, was that this film departs from the normal documentary approach and uses actors to reenact events from when the grandmother was younger. These actors are not very good or at least do not demonstrate their talents, so the film feels amateur during these scenes. The actress who plays the younger Obaachan is actually another granddaughter (Natsuko Ohama), but is theoretically also an actress. I'm afraid I wasn't convinced.
The director and her daughter (a great-granddaughter) were at the screening at the 2002 Hawaii International Film Festival on 11/3/2002 to answer questions. They were on their way to Japan to show it there for 30 days. Obaachan wanted to come on the trip, but the doctors recommended against it. She's about 104.
When Linda Ohama started the film, her grandmother had recently gone into a nursing home. Ohama discovered that her grandmother stretched out the filmmaking process by refusing to talk too much on any one day, because she liked the attention. At one point we see her leading a cheer of "Banzai!" from a wheelchair. This is the kind of spirit that makes the film watchable.
Note that while the film is primarily in English, there is some subtitled Japanese.
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