One morning, 80-year-old Ayumu Nippori wakes up believing he is 20 years old. Seemingly disoriented, he walks around his house, calling for his mother. Two clearly very old black-and-white photographs of Nippori’s parents on a chest of drawers that are visible briefly in one of the shots are a first clue that something is wrong. “What’s happening to me? I don’t feel right,” the protagonist wonders, and he concludes: “This is a dream. It’s a dream. I’m still asleep.” The storyline may sound familiar, but in Across a Gold Prairie (Kinpatsu no sogen, Japan, 1999), based on a manga by Yumiko Oshima, Isshin Inudo succeeds in creating something original. Nippori, played by Yusuke Iseya, who was 23 years old when the film was made, looks like the young man he thinks he is, but the people around him see an 80-year-old. However, the viewer is never allowed a glimpse of what the old man really looks like, with the only indication of his physical appearance in old age being Nippori’s oversized underpants hanging on the clothesline.
The first time both the protagonist and the viewer are confronted with the discrepancy between two diverging realities is when the neighbour’s little daughter (Erisa Yanagi) calls Nippori an “old fart”. The film’s main female protagonist, 18-year-old Narisu (Chizuru Ikewaki), who starts working as Nippori’s carer the very day of his transformation, also thinks her client is an elderly gentleman.
The disparity between Nippori’s self-perception and how others see him leads to misunderstandings. Narisu is taken aback when Nippori says “in all my twenty years” and by similar remarks revealing that he is in a different reality. However, instead of assuming he is senile, as does one of her friends, she tries to understand her client, who believes he is living in a dream.
The film approaches its complex theme in a refreshingly light-hearted manner. Just a few allusions are enough to make the viewer realize that Nippori is back in the late 1930s. He has to ask Narisu how to use a keypad telephone and he is not aware that most of his friends are dead. One of them – Kanzaki (Takeshi Kato) – is still alive, and when he comes to visit, Nippori does not recognize him at first, as Kanzaki’s appearance is that of a man of 80 and not that of the young man Nippori knew. Living with his memory as a 20-year-old, Nippori cannot know that Kanzaki lost an arm in the Battle of Guadalcanal.
Is Nippori just losing his memory? Instead of offering a psychological discourse on old age or a philosophical one on dream and reality, Inudo makes use of cinematic means to explore the fragility of human existence and the human quest for happiness. The unsettling feelings that both Nippori and Narisu experience are expressed in visual terms by the bluish colour invading the space in the first sequence in which Nippori appears, convinced that he is still a young man. Oblique camera angles, frequent close-ups, bird’s eye and worm’s eye views and also shots of the sky, of flowers and of trees – shots that are not necessarily related to the story – contribute to a constant fragmentation that creates a feeling of instability and insecurity.
The hectic urban world in which Narisu lives, her tiny flat and the busy streets she walks along, contrast with Nippori’s old but rather elegant house set in a quiet residential area. This contrast is heightened in the scenes in which the young woman is shown in her free time enjoying life with her friends in a karaoke bar and other places of entertainment that are dominated by dark colours and confined spaces. The film score also captures these different moods, being sometimes romantic, sometimes more lively with electronic music, creating a counterpoint to the quietness in Nippori’s house.
There are poetic moments such as the shots of a room abundantly decorated with sunflowers, and also some whimsical episodes that contribute to the strangeness at the core of the film. The singer and comedian Susumu Sakai suddenly materializes next to the sleeping Nippori after appearing in an old black-and-white television show shown a few sequences earlier. In one bizarre sequence, the neighbour threatens his wife with a baseball bat, finally smashing it against a placard bearing the message “Beware of perverts!”. The neighbour’s child repeatedly refers to Nippori as an “old fart”, and when at one point she is able to see him as a young man, she does not recognize him as Nippori. It also seems that Nippori is not the only person caught in a dreamlike past. One evening, Narisu meets a crepe vendor who shares Nippori’s fate: he thinks he is still thirteen years old, but others see a man of fifty.
Iseya plays Nippori in a highly convincing manner. Although he looks like the young man he actually was in 1999, his movements are those of an elderly person. He succeeds in expressing Nippori’s confusion and despair, and also his embarrassment when Narisu wants to wash his underpants or when Nippori is confronted with a reality that seems to keep slipping away from him.
Across a Gold Prairie is a film about memory and the loss of memory told in the frame of a charming story about lost dreams and desires. Narisu becomes an object of desire for Nippori as she reminds him of a young girl he fell in love with during his first year at university. She was his beloved “Madonna”. For her part, Narisu is attracted to her strange client, who does not act at all like the old and embittered eccentric who scared off her colleagues but is instead polite and attentive. Indeed, he behaves like the young Nippori would have behaved – a young man in love with his “Madonna”, the inaccessible woman of his dreams.
Nippori has suffered from valvulitis since he was 21 years old, and after several years spent in hospitals, he has lived a secluded life in which physical exertion and also marriage are taboo. Nippori has a heart condition and Narisu has a broken heart because of unrequited love. Their realities collide but eventually merge when the young woman agrees to marry the old man she is taking care of.
“I’ve always wanted to live free of all constraints,” Nippori says, and for a short while he is able to realize this desire and to enjoy life. The gold prairie of his imagination becomes a reality, and the film evokes this landscape of hope in shots of the sea glittering in the sunset – an imaginary and boundless realm. Nippori’s longing for the “Madonna” of his young days has also been fulfilled. However, he understands that although Narisu looks like the young girl he was secretly in love with several decades ago, she has a life of her own. He becomes more and more aware of the existence of two conflicting realities and ultimately takes the decision to set Narisu (and himself) free. Before jumping to his death from the roof of his house, he says how glad he is that he has met Narisu – the real Narisu and not his “Madonna”.
Nippori’s rebirth is short-lived. However, as a result of her encounter with him, Narisu has the courage to declare her true feelings to her stepbrother, the man she is in love with, and even though his reply is vague, she looks happy. The final shot shows Nippori in a flashback – one of Narisu’s memories of a beautiful day spent with him at the beach. Happiness is the key word here, and the message is that every individual is responsible for his/her own happiness. And there is also a more light-hearted message, namely that perhaps nothing should be taken too seriously, not even Inudo’s film itself.