I'm Barry Petersen, and this Letter from Asia comes from Tokyo. Alzheimer's disease can strike people as young as 30 years old. It's called Early-Onset Alzheimer's, a condition that inspired a movie here in Japan.
Alzheimer's is sad and personal, and that is one reason why Japanese actor Ken Watanabe turned a book called "Memories of Tomorrow" into a movie. He bought the book one day, read it all that night, and the next morning, he decided he had to produce a movie and star in it.
"I felt something warm in my body," says Watanabe. "I wanted to make a film to convey that particular feeling to my audience." Watanabe plays well-liked advertising executive Saeki, not quite 50, who has just scored the biggest account of his career. One day, he forgets a critical meeting. Then he can't remember that he bought shaving cream, so he keeps buying more. Finally, confronted by the diagnosis, he considers suicide, but opts for life.
It is hardly the tough-guy character Watanabe usually plays in American movies, like the general in the "Last Samurai". "I've always played the hero," says Watanabe. "I had a very strong desire to play someone similar to the real me in everyday life."
Watanabe has no friends or relative with Alzheimer's, but he had leukemia twenty years ago. Fighting that battle drove this performance - a performance honored with this year's Japanese Academy Award for best actor.
"I thought I should go back to what I was going through," says Watanabe. "I felt the need to do that for myself and convey it to people through the film, so that is probably the biggest reason to make this film."
Saeki fights to hang on until his daughter is married and his grand-daughter is born. However, his mind is shutting down. One day, he doesn't remember his wife. He introduces himself as one would to a stranger.
Approximately 4.5 million Americans have Alzheimer's, and that number may rise to 16-million by the middle of this century. Every ending is a sad one. No wonder that advocates are stunned that the Bush administration wants to cut funding for Alzheimer's research, just like it did last year.
By Barry Petersen By Barry Petersen