Somebody’s Flowers (2021) by Yusuke Okuda

A sombre drama about loss and dementia. Takaaki’s (Shinsuke Kato) is left to look after his elderly parents after his brother Kento dies in a car accident. His father Tadayoshi (Choei Takahashi) has dementia, often wandering off, calling Takaaki by his brother’s name, and forgetting what he is doing; while his wife Machi (Kazuko Yoshiyuki) does her best to care for him. When a new family, the Kusumotos, move into their apartment block, tragedy strikes when the father is fatally injured by a falling flower pot, leaving his wife, Akari (Misa Wada), and young son, Sota (Ruse Ota), to cope with his loss. Takaaki begins to suspect that it may have been Tadayoshi who dropped the flower pot, although his father shows no signs of remembering the incident. Takaaki attempts to protect his father by lying and terminating the contract of his home helper, Satomi (Honoka Murakami), who is also suspicious.

Written and directed by Yusuke Okuda, based on personal experience of a family member with dementia, “Somebody’s Flowers” is an often touching and tragic drama that looks at a serious social issue. The depiction of Tadayoshi’s condition is sensitive while tackling the strain it puts on his wife and son. Choei Takahashi’s performance as the elderly Tadayoshi, with unsure steps, repetitive statements, and absent expression, capture the peculiar vulnerability of those suffering memory loss. The rest of the cast, Kazuko Yoshiyuki as his loving wife, and Takaaki as his morally conflicted son, whose feelings towards his father move from exasperation to concern, do a fantastic job creating a sense of a family unit doing their best to carry on after the death of Kento and the deteriorating condition of Tadayoshi. The film’s inciting incident, the death of Akari and Sota’s father and husband, gives the film a semblance of plot, but for the most part it is a more documentary-like exploration of these characters and their experiences. The scenes at the grief councelling group consolidate this documentary style as the participants give their thoughts on bereavement. “Somebody’s Flowers” leaves the audience to decide where they stand on the issues presented, particularly concerning the guilt of Tadayoshi, while creating scenes that brim with emotionality. The direction and framing heighten the impact of each scene, with an emphasis on character viewpoints guiding the audience through and offering varied perspectives on what has happened. The minimalist score breaks in rarely to set the scene, but never undermines the realism of the story. A scene late in the film, in which Tadayoshi believes he is talking to his lost son Kento, and encourages Takaaki to speak with his brother, is effecting in its simplicity and again succeeds on the strength of the main cast, capturing the complex emotions of the characters.

“Somebody’s Flowers” is a film in the vein of Koji Fukada’s “Harmonium”, dealing with a difficult social issue, with a story that doesn’t attempt to sensationalise or rationalise on behalf of the characters. We are presented with a situation that engenders sympathy for the protagonists, struggling with dementia and taking care of someone with the condition. It asks difficult questions about guilt, blame and responsibility, loyalty, loss and forgiveness. In the case of Tadayoshi he is incapable of taking responsibility for his actions, almost childlike in his innocence and unconscious of his own actions. In the survivor’s group we see people still struggling to forgive the perpetrators of the accidents that took their loved ones; while Takaaki must contemplate the possibility that his father is a murderer (albeit unwittingly). “Somebody’s Flowers” creates a powerful emotional drama about death and dementia that asks the audience to consider their own feelings on the issues it raises.

Almost Coming, Almost Dying (2017) by Toshimasa Kobayashi

Sex and death, two of humanities most enduring fascinations are brought together in this darkly comic tale. After many years out of work, and trying with little success to become a manga artist, Manabu Nakagawa (Nou Miso) finally finds a job as a tutor for an autistic boy. However, while out celebrating his new income by visiting a prostitute on New Year’s Eve, Manabu is brought down by RCVS, a disease that affects the brain causing painful headaches. Manabu is taken into hospital, under the care of doctor Ishige (Shunya Itabashi). When his parents and sister come to visit, his mother is keen to know where he was when he had his accident, a stress that Manabu could do without.

“Almost Coming, Almost Dying” is based on Manabu Nakagawa’s manga, and directed by Toshimasa Kobayashi with a screenplay by Hiroyuki Abe. The film follows Manabu (Miso), a who typifies the unlucky comedy archetype, brought low at his most vulnerable moment. It finds black comedy in the dark situation of having a serious illness, balanced against the embarrassing situation where it occurred. The shift from raunchy comedy early on, to suddenly a rather morbid hospital-based dark comedy fits the story, hitting the viewer as unexpectedly as Manabu himself is struck with this condition. The disease itself is portrayed as a red and black bear mascot with an exposed brain, who whacks Manabu with a bat around the head, causing his headaches. These surreal moments, along with the toilet humour, help keep things light-hearted, despite the depressing connotations of the story. After all, there is little to do but laugh at the arbitrariness of these things and people’s inability both to control their own urges or escape their own mortality. The jazz soundtrack by also keeps the film from becoming overly downbeat. The central ongoing gag, of Manabu being unable to tell his family where he was when he had his attack, becomes a little drawn out, but there are plenty of other great moments of cringe humour, such as having the toilet door left open while people wander past a helpless Manabu, or him asking the doctor if he can still masturbate with this condition. Nou Miso does a great job with the character, his hapless, put-upon expression familiar to anyone who has had to be taken into hospital, or suffer the indignity of personal questions.

Sex and death are subjects that are often both taboo and of endless interest to people, two things that we cannot escape as humans. Things that we would rather not discuss openly are ripe for comedy and that is no more apparent than in “Almost Coming, Almost Dying”. Nakagawa’s manga was based on his own experiences, which helps provide believable scenarios, the comedy is rarely forced, but born out of the personalities of its characters and the situations they find themselves in. It is a great example of art created from tragedy, with the writer turning his ordeal into something that can be enjoyed. An amusing dark comedy about an unfortunate incident and how people deal with shame.

Taste of Emptiness (2017) by Marina Tsukada

A moving story about a young high-school girl suffering with an eating disorder. Satoko (Haruna Hori) appears to be a happy and healthy teenager, part of her school dance club with her circle of friends. She lives with her parents and older brother, Keita. But unbeknownst to both friends and family, Satoko is dealing with an eating disorder. Counting calories in a diary, fretting over what she is able to eat, alternately binging and purging, taking scalding hot baths, her life is an endless round of self-destructive behaviours. Following an argument with her family, Satoko moves in with her closest friend Kanae. She also finds the courage to visit a doctor, where she meets an older woman, Maki (Sakie Hayashida), who is dealing with her own mental health issues.

Written and directed by Marina Tsukada, the film is based in part on the director’s own experiences of this condition while at university. The central performance by Haruna Hori captures the internal turmoil of the character, constantly pacing, furtively noting calories in her diary, concealing her actions from those around her, and her often tentative, almost fearful, reactions to food. These sorts of compulsive behaviours and the nervous energy accompanying, no doubt guided by the director’s first-hand knowledge, are very believable. The film focusses entirely on Satoko’s condition, and the effects it has on her, refraining from unnecessary subplots or attempts to insert a morality or message to the story. It does not need it. What we have is a raw, powerful portrayal of the alienating, distracted, loneliness that typifies many mental illnesses. The film offers no easy answers or explanations, hinting only subtly at pressures faced by girls such as beauty standards, or the way that valuing self-worth can be harmfully linked to appearance. Instead we are largely left alone with Satoko, and Hori’s incredible performance, and little by little we come to completely sympathise as we follow her routines. The direction, often isolating her, or else shutting her out of sight, are an excellent way of allowing the audience in part to experience this condition along with her, or at least to sense some of what is happening internally. The same is true of the long takes, that force the viewer to sit alone with Satoko, creating a sense of discomfort and helplessness. The character of Maki, who is suffering a suicidal manic-depression, and their friendship, is the closest the film comes to having a narrative element, but as with Satoko, we are given no easy answers, only glimpses of what causes her erratic behaviours. Sakie Hayashida does a great job with this character, with a bubbly charm hiding deep seated fears.

“Taste of Emptiness” is an exploration of an experience which will be unfamiliar to many viewers, but it does an incredible job of allowing us into Satoko’s life. It doesn’t attempt to explain her condition, or the causes, but simply allows us to spend time with her and see what it is like to suffer with an eating disorder. One of the themes of the film is how these conditions often go hidden. We see Satoko at several points wearing a mask and performing dance steps. Her masked dancer persona is a representation of this soul, trapped in her own experience, desperately attempting to communicate something of how she is feeling, perhaps a mystery even to herself, through her behaviours. Both at the beginning and end of the film Satoko appears as a solitary figure amongst a throng of people, all busy about their own lives. As she disappears into the crowd at the end, the audience are left with the stark realisation that all too often these conditions go unseen, lost and alone amongst a society that is largely unaware that people are suffering in silence. A difficult watch but an emotional and skilfully crafted portrayal of an eating disorder.