The Lone Ume Tree (2021) by Kotaro Wajima

An elderly single-mother and her autistic adult son battle against local prejudices in this family drama. Tamako Yamada (Mariko Kaga) works as a fortune-teller while caring for her son Tadao (Muga Tsukaji), familiarly known as Chu-san, who has autism. When new neighours the Satomura’s move in next door, they come into conflict with the Yamada’s over a plum tree that is overhanging the path beside their house. Head of the house Shigeru (Ikkei Watanabe) has little sympathy for Tadao’s condition, while his wife Eiko (Yoko Moriguchi) and son Sota (Taiyo Saito), get to know and understand their neighours circumstances. Deciding that Tadao would benefit from more independence, Tamako decides to move him to a local group home for others with similar conditions; but this also raises concerns from the local population who feel threatened by the behaviour of the residents.

“The Lone Ume Tree”, written and directed by Kotaro Wajima, depicts the issues involved with raising autistic children and some of the negative reactions they provoke. Chu-san’s unusual interactions, never making eye-contact, responding in terse statements, doesn’t endear him to his neighbours and many of them seem unwilling to accommodate his behaviour, instead more concerned with their own lives or businesses. Comedian Muga Tsukaji does a good job as Chu-san, depicting his autism in a realistic way, but also showing the love he has for his mother which is often hard for him to display outwardly. Veteran actress Mariko Kaga is also perfectly cast as Tamako, an independent spirit whose energy and devotion to her son is inspiring. The supporting cast, including the neighbours, residents of the care home and locals give a great sense of a real community, with positive and negative responses to Chu-san showing the range of reactions to living with such conditions. Hiromitsu Ishikawa off-beat score is a great counterpart to the drama, representing Chu-san’s peculiar view of the world.

The plum tree of the title acts as a symbol of Chu-san’s own condition. We learn that it was planted by Chu-san’s father before he left Tamako and it has an almost symbiotic relationship with the character. Chu-san is distraught when someone comes to cut off the overhanging branches leading to it remaining as it is. While both the plum tree and Chu-san are seen as troublesome to their neighbours, they both represent life in all its awkward and uncompromising variety. The neighbours, at first distressed by the tree and Chu-san, learn to accept them as part of the environment. It is a novel way to express this notion that we should avoid antagonism and seek acceptance of things that may seem frustrating but are in fact the essence of humanity.