Japanese cinema at the Berlin Film Festival, which closed on Sunday, was represented by a rich selection that ranged from children’s docu-fiction to hardcore trash. Reporter Anne Thomas was impressed by two films in particular.
Behind Japan's high-rises lie individual fates which young filmmakers are exploring with great humanity
"Mental” (“Seishin”), an extremely sensitive documentary by Soda Kazuhiro and “Deep in the Valley” (“Yanaka Boshoku”), a beautifully-shot cross between fiction and documentary by Funahashi Atsushi, both tell the story of communities isolated from the mainstream.
In “Mental”, it is psychological illness which creates the barrier. In “Deep in the Valley”, it is environment and history that set the community of Yanaka in downtown Tokyo apart, as well as generational gap.
In both films, the members of the community come together and the directors use their cameras to point an extraordinarily humane picture of contemporary Japan, breaking down barriers and taboos.
Daily life of outpatients with mental disorders
Soda Kazuhiro, who first caught the limelight with his 2007 documentary about the campaign of first-time candidate and political virgin Yamauchi Kazuhiko for a vacant seat on Kawasaki's city council, follows the daily goings-on at a walk-in clinic for outpatients with mental health disorders of varying degrees.
He films the patients talking with each other, laughing, playing, reading each other’s poetry, and he also interviews them individually, building up such a degree of trust that they reveal their most intimate feelings to him and thus to the cinema audience. One schizophrenic woman relates how she abused and killed her baby daughter. Another describes how she used to walk the streets for money to care for her young children.
The outpatients and their carers at the clinic thus talk openly about subjects which remain a taboo in mainstream society. Their shared hero is Dr Yamamoto Masatomo, the founder and director of the clinic, who has pioneered a more humane approach to psychiatric care and treatment.
He comes across like a modern-day saint with a simplicity and modesty of attitude that allow him to empathise with his patients whom he treats as equals. Apart from his daily consultations, he also gives lectures to young medical students and trainee nurses in the hope of raising more awareness about mental illness in Japan, where as one patient puts it the general assumption is that people with mental problems are all potential killers or rapists.
Playing with contrast
With its more complex structure, “Deep in the Valley” also tells the story of a community and a district, Yanaka, which originally means in the middle of the valley. As the director puts it, to him it seems as if “the area is located in a deep gorge between two high plateaus, the ‘in-between zone’ of high and low societies, or the rich and the poor, the living and the dead.”
Interweaving documentary and fiction, as well as the use of black-and-white and colour, with an extraordinary sense of visual poetry, the director brings these contrasting societies together.
He is especially interested in the gap between the young and the old, who in modern-day Japan are growing increasingly apart. He explains that he tried to answer the question of whether they are so different, using the Five Storey Pagoda as a point of reference.
This pagoda, which haunts the district of Yanaka, which itself in terms of architecture is in stark contrast to the high-rises of Tokyo, boasting the largest concentration of temples in the city, burnt down in 1957. It forms the basis of legend and regret for the elderly residents who speculate on the cause and perpetrator of the fire.
Exploring the generational divide
Trying to answer the question of whether the young and the elderly are different “in essence”, Atsushi explained, he felt “the pagoda could be a clue since it is what the ‘the elderly’ miss most in this neighbourhood and ‘the young’ don’t seem to care at all about it.”
In the post-screening Q & A, the main female actress, Sato Mayo, said the film had awakened a realisation in her that she did not know her grandparents and that she had changed her attitude to other generations as a result of making it.
In the fictional part of the film, Mayo plays a member of the local film society on a mission to find a reel of film which has footage of the legendary pagoda. She succeeds with the help of a small-time crook, played by Nomura Yuki, who changes his ways to secure her affection and becomes emotionally attached to elderly people he originally tried to swindle.
In a third strand of the film, the two actors star in an adaptation of the classic 19th-century novel “Five Storey Pagoda” by Koda Rohan. Yuki plays a carpenter who is determined to design and build the pagoda on his own in defiance of his superiors.
Blurring the lines between reality and unreality
The three parts of the film come together seamlessly and towards the end it becomes at times unclear what part one is watching, especially as the director moves towards the full use of colour.
This is an intentional effect on the part of the filmmaker whose artistic ambition is to blur the lines between reality and unreality, between the past and the present, between the old and the young. He leaves the audience to draw its own conclusions about the relationship between time and space, as well as between generations and human beings generally.
This is what connects him to Soda Kazuhiro. At different screenings in Berlin, they both thanked the festival in a similar, congenial manner, tell their audience that their careers had literally been “made” by the Berlinale where their first films had premiered and expressing their pleasure to be back.