In 2009 Peabody Award-winning filmmaker Kazuhiro Soda was asked to make a film on the subject of peace and co-existence by the organizers of the DMZ Korean International Documentary Festival. Most filmmakers given such a task would probably take us into the middle of an uneasy truce between military rivals (such as North and South Korea), or give us a portrait of an individual whose risks violence and death in order to ensure peace. Soda is not a battlefield documentarian though. "Observational" portraits of friends, such as old college roommate Kazuhiko Yamauchi in 2007's "Campaign", and his mother-in-law Hiroko Kashiwaga who worked at an Okayama Prefecture mental health clinic in 2008's "Mental", are his special forte. So for the DMZ KID Festival Soda once again focused his camera on those around him to explore the concept of peace in its most subtle manifestations.
Soda's father-in-law Toshio Hashigawa has worked for decades as a driver for the mentally and physically handicapped. It is his job to pick up his clients and take them on shopping trips, to their work places and in some cases on day trips that are designed to simply brighten their day. Hashigawa, an outwardly gruff, taciturn man on the verge of his senior years, changes around the people on his route, becoming gentle and doting. This gentle side also comes out when he is at home and is feeding a group of stray cats that he has been taking care of for years. His wife Hiroko loves her husband but admits to hating his herd of mangy-looking cats. They attract flies she says, and she has enough to deal at her own job, working at an outpatient care facility. Daily Hiroko travels to the homes of the elderly, like 91-year-old Shiro Hashimoto, to provide home care and company. It's not always an easy job though. Hashimoto's cramped home attracts its own vermin, but the war vet is too ill to take care of the problem. We learn that he has terminal lung cancer, but is still rebelliously smoking and drinking. Given these three individuals, how does Soda present an illustration of peace to viewers? It turns out in myriad ways.
"Peace" opens with Toshio maintaining peace between his group of stray cats and one lone feline he has dubbed "the thief cat". This interloper, far mangier than the rest of the group, comes to the Kashiwaga's yard at feeding time and steals food from the other cats. Instead of scaring off this "thief cat" with violence though Toshio makes special arrangements for him to have his meals in the bushes, away from the other cats, so that he is fed and the other cats aren't disturbed. It's this simple solution to a potentially fur-flying situation that says volumes about Toshio's character and it extends to his work. There he brings peace to his clients. Without Toshio their lives would be a prison of isolation, but he brings them sunshine (literally), assistance and dignity. Toshio's wife Hiroko does the same with her clients, especially Hashimoto-san whose wife passed away years before. Hiroko's visits give Hashimoto a bit of the domestic peace that he must have enjoyed with his wife.
Not everything is sunshine and roses Soda's film though. It is obvious that Toshio's cats cause tension between him and his wife. After one of her rants he simply smiles and says "No comment" and an uncomfortable peace settles on the room between husband and wife. Also there is a cruel irony present in "Peace". The name of Soda's film is also the same name of the brand of cigarettes that Hashimoto continues to slowly kill himself with. The old man doesn't seem to care though. Without smoking (and the occasional shot of sake) his existence would be truly miserable. Maybe the cigarettes that have damned him to a death by cancer will also be his ticket to entry into the peace of the after life, a place he often speaks of throughout the film.
"Peace" is an original take on what could have been a pat exploration of war and peace. Soda takes what he does best, giving audiences unadorned footage of those around him, and embues it with the themes of balance, momentary release, cooperation and acceptance. While "Peace" doesn't break any new ground in Soda's "observational" filmography it will leave viewers with the realization that peace, even at the most basic levels in our lives, is something that we must work to attain and definitely should not take for granted.