“Some day, when I’m awfully low,
When the world is cold,
I will feel a glow just thinking of you,
And the way you look tonight.”
— “The Way You Look Tonight”
“How come you took so many”? Tom Takesue is looking through packets of photos, images of his wife lying dead, a red blanket over her body, her blouse pink and white, her face at peace. As he studies the photos, arranging them in piles of similar poses, he tells his granddaughter, “I took from all angles, yeah?”
All angles. It’s a helpful phrase in thinking about Kimi Takesue’s film, which screens at the Doc Yard on 12 March. At first glance a portrait of her grandfather, a Japanese immigrant living in Hawaii for over 90 years, 95 and 6 to Go is also a broader consideration of an immigrant’s experience, a study of loss and resilience, a celebration of poetry and philosophy in everyday life. Kimi has come to stay with Tom following her grandmother Ethel’s death, and as he sorts through memories of their lives together, the filmmaker asks him to read through a screenplay she’s working on, a film about Koji, a Japanese man struggling with the death of his daughter as he finds romance with a princess. “So,” offers Tom, “What you call, he blame himself, right?”
Tom’s insights are at once profound and practical, illustrated by multiple photos of his youth. He smiles broadly in shots of himself in his mailman’s uniform, a job he applied for after the Depression made it impossible for him to afford college. Other family photos show his parents, immigrants from Yamaguchi, Tom with Ethel and their children, He heads outside to hang laundry on a line, as Kimi’s voice asks what it was like for Japanese in Hawaii during World War II. “They had no respect for us,” he says, “Other people, other races. They think we were the cause of it.” Kimi’s camera turns to watch him walk inside, bent over and still spry, while his voiceover continues over a shot of the yard, now empty save for a lifetime’s worth of clutter, hoses and ladders and buckets and pipes. “Even today,” he adds, “Don’t think they accept you.”
Tom’s occasional advice for his granddaughter speaks to subtle themes in the film, the junctures of empathy and patience, of his stories with hers. “You better start working,” he cautions Kimi, “Don’t depend on the film.” Where will she find financing, he wonders. “That’s what’s tricky,” she admits. “The producers, they haven’t raised the money yet.” She’s been developing the project for four years, she says, then adds, “Won’t it be a waste if I just give up?” Named for the prognosis her grandfather receives from doctors late in the film — he’s 95 and they say he has six months to live, owing to cancer in his bladder — 95 and 6 to Go reveals she never gave up, but instead found a way to pull together both their stories, their histories and futures, their different perspectives, and their forever bonds.
While Kimi is making movies — including her superb 2010 documentary, Where Are You Taking Me? — she returns repeatedly to Hawaii to shoot this film over six years, a series of conversations with her grandfather and her grandmother before she died: as he laughs off-screen, she recalls that she wasn’t immediately taken by Tom when they first met: “Every single night he used to call me, oh, what a guy, you know, he just irritated me.” These shared moments are intertwined with shots of the shrine to Ethel in his living room, quietly spectacular B-roll of the waters, cliffs, and mountains of Hawaii, as well as observational footage, as Tom eats, exercises, and sometimes dozes in front of the television. These scenes create a lovely mix of intimacy and reserve: seated in his kitchen with the camera placed on the table, Tom speaks in a low angle frame, chewing and pausing, his recollections laced with wisdom and wonder.
“You were a good dancer, right?” asks Kimi from off-screen. “I was all right,” he says, “I took dancing seriously, I enjoyed it.” As he lists the dances he liked — “the waltz and Latin rumba”, and the cha-cha too — you see him dancing the foxtrot barefoot in his living room, his steps graceful and steady, his shorts white, a fully decorated Christmas tree tucked into the corner behind him. A few albums are spotlighted in close insert shots, Nat King Cole’s Love is the Thing, This is Sinatra!, and Doris Day’s Day Dreams. “I wish grandma was here,” he says from off-screen, over color snapshots of them dancing together, arms up and faces bright. She stopped dancing, he sighs, after her daughter died. This is another story the film untangles gradually, exquisitely, each beat an echo of a receding past.
Occasionally, as he’s offering notes on Kimi’s script (“You gotta give the plot more fat, something to reason it, how are they gonna fall in love?”), Tom comes up with possible titles and songs she might use, including Nat King Cole’s “Autumn Leaves” and “The Way You Look Tonight.” It costs money to secure the rights to such music, Kimi notes from off-screen. He suggests she seek a compromise, offering ten percent of the revenue. “You want to be my manager?” she asks. He nods.
The love and admiration the two share are clear enough in every shot and every cut that joins two shots. And yet, for all the detailed compositions and delicate rhythms of what you see in 95 and 6 to Go, what may be most affecting is what remains off-screen. Kimi’s voice poses questions, Tom’s comes up with some answers, and throughout you hear the sounds of his life ongoing, faraway traffic, a neighbor’s dog barking, ocean breezes, fireworks on the Fourth of July, or football and KIKU programming on his television. As she records him looking back and ahead (he has plans to find a companion with whom he might travel), their hopes and memories merge and shape each other. When the film closes with Fred Astaire’s thin, enchanting, voice singing “The Way You Look Tonight”, it’s both thrilling and heartbreaking, the perfect way to end this extraordinary film.