Latest documentary "Oyster Factory" has been officially invited to Locarno International Film Festival 2015! 最新作『牡蠣工場』がロカルノ国際映画祭へ正式招待されました!

Sunday, June 14, 2009

The Japan Times

The Japan Times6月12日号にも、『精神』の大きな記事が載りました。

The Japan Times (June 12th Issue) ran a big article on MENTAL. It can be read on the web, too.

From despair to somewhere
Kazuhiro Soda's latest film is a fascinating insight into a Japanese mental-health clinic


Seishin Rating: (3.5 out of 5)

Director: Kazuhiro Soda
Running time: 135 minutes
Language: Japanese
Opens June 13, 2009

In the United States, doctors prescribe psychotropic drugs as commonly as cold tablets and memorists detail their breakdowns and addictions in best-selling books. In Japan, however, the mentally ill often try to hide their condition from employers, family and friends, while seeking treatment only as a last resort.

They fear, rightly in many cases, the stigma of being labeled "weak," "strange" or "crazy" in a conformist society with a culture of shame. Suicide starts to look like the only, tacitly approved, way out.

Soda, a New York-based documentary filmmaker who has screened "Seishin" at film festivals in Busan, Berlin and elsewhere, picking up several prizes along the way, opens a rare window into their lives, but less as an impassioned advocate than as a fly-on-the-wall observer.

In condensing hundreds of hours of footage shot at a mental-health clinic in Okayama in 2005 and 2007, Soda added no editorializing titles, narration or music. He also let his subjects, as much as possible, speak for themselves, minus the digital masking considered de rigeur for television interviews.

One problem with this minimalistic approach is that we have to piece together even basic information from on-the-fly comments, rather than answers to specific questions. The mysteries of how, when and why Dr. Masatomo Yamamoto, the elderly psychiatrist who is the film's hero, came to run his clinic, which many of his patients regard as a second home, are never quite explained.

Also, Soda's camera can be ruthless in exposing the vulnerabilities, character flaws and even crimes of his subjects. In one chilling scene, a schizophrenic woman confesses to killing her baby in a black fit of frustration — and one wonders at the consequences for her, both social and legal.

But this dedication to showing the bad as well as the good creates more trust between the filmmaker and audience than propagandizing, which can present the mentally ill as saintly victims. True, Soda could have told his story more concisely — his 135-minute film is at least half an hour too long — but by the end I knew his subjects and their world in the raw and in the round, as though I'd spent a few weeks hanging around the clinic.

"Seishin" 's central figure is Yamamoto, now 73, who started the Chorale Okayama clinic in 1997 as a sort of postretirement project. He has since added a milk-delivery and restaurant business, staffed by patients, as well as opening a shelter where patients can stay temporarily. His aim, with the support of a dedicated staff, has been to create a community where the mentally ill can develop the self confidence, survival skills and human connections they need to ease their transition into the larger society.

In his dealing with patients, Yamamoto initially comes across more as the crusty neighborhood sensei (teacher) than the crusading reformer: Doctor-patient conversations are short and drugs are doled out by the fistful. But Yamamoto's methods, such as his habit of tossing his patients' questions back in their faces ("What do think you should you do?") and drawing little diagrams to illustrate his points (a straight line for the stages of life in the West and a circle for the East), have a Zen-like wisdom.

He has not, however, created a happy little utopia — many of his patients are suicidal, socially isolated and living on public assistance. One middle-aged woman tells how, the night before, she ended up in the hospital after overdosing on her medications. She shows her wrists, crisscrossed with scars. Her face tear-strained, she speaks of wanting to die. Several other patients confess to similar thoughts, and after filming was completed, two carried fatally through.

Yamamoto is also no miracle worker, restoring patients to health with a pithy word or two. One, a heavy-set, quick-witted raconteur whose monologues are punctuated by punning gags and party tricks, tells how he had his first breakdown as a high-school student prepping 18 hours a day for his college entrance exams. Instead of answering the questions on his semester tests, he assigned ratings to his teachers, grading them on a scale of 1 to 100. After being tagged as "strange" for this incident, he was referred to Dr. Yamamoto, and has been seeing him for 25 years.

"He's like a god to me," he says. But God can't erase that long-ago trauma or restore the lost time.

What Yamamoto and his staff do provide, though, is a vital lifeline that gives patients the support they need to recover — or simply make it through the day.

But, now, as Soda also shows, the patients are faced with government-mandated cutbacks in services and hikes in payments. They hold meetings and voice their objections, but compared with other, better funded and connected constituencies, they are all but powerless.

"Seishin," which Image Forum theater in Shibuya will screen in an English-subtitled print daily at 6 p.m., and which will later open around the country, ought to be seen by, not only Diet members voting on health-care legislation, but anyone interested in how minds can become sick — and be cured. As Soda so eloquently shows, the mentally ill aren't marginal "others," but like people we see around us every day at work and at home. Even in the mirror.


Soda takes a pop at taboos

Staff writer

Kazuhiro Soda made his name with his first documentary film "Campaign," which follows the director's former classmate Kazuhiko Yamauchi as he campaigns for a city-council seat in Kawasaki, Kanagawa Prefecture. The film was screened at the Berlin Film Festival in 2007, broadcast on TV in around 200 countries and last month, in May, won the prestigious Peabody Award, which is often referred to as the Pulitzer Prize for radio and broadcasting.

His second feature documentary, "Seishin" ("Mental"), breaks a taboo and opens — as the director puts it — "an invisible curtain" between the so-called "healthy" and "the ill."

The day after he finished filming "Campaign," Soda stepped inside Chorale Okayama, an outpatient mental clinic in Okayama Prefecture, to see the world inside the curtain.

"I went to the clinic as an outsider, met many people, heard many stories and left the place. Then I reconstructed my experience into this film the way audiences can relive the time I had there, as if they visited the clinic themselves" says Soda in an interview with The Japan Times.

The Japan-born N.Y.-based director didn't do any research on the subject beforehand. "That's my policy. I tried to observe the reality as it is, with an open mind," he explains. "I went there with my camera ready to roll, asking each person I met for permission to film them."

The process, however, was not easy. The director notes, "eight or nine people out of 10 said no. But luckily, one or two said yes."

All the people who agreed to be in the film expose themselves with surprising candor. They talk frankly about their personal histories and the reason why they are at the clinic; and some of the stories are shocking.

Soda, who just turned 39, reveals, "There were some scenes that I couldn't make up my mind easily about whether I should use them or not." Among them is a scene where a woman reveals her heart-wrenching past and how she ended up killing her baby.

After long and deep consideration, Soda included the scene. The story could not be excluded from the film if the woman was to be portrayed accurately.

However, when the woman found out that the scene was in the film at a special screening held for the patients and the clinic's staff, she got distracted and said that she can no longer walk down the streets. "Though I expected she may react the way she did, I was stunned. But then one of the patients raised her hand and said, 'I've known you for a long time, but I never knew your real pain, and I'm glad that I learned it now. I also raised kids myself so I know how difficult it can be.' Then many spoke up" recalls the filmmaker, continuing, "The woman finally said she's glad that she's in the film, saying, 'For the past 15 years, I thought if I tell the story, everyone will be my enemy. Just to know that there are some people who understand me is enough for me.' "

Still, Soda is anxious as to whether she can remain like that after the film is released in Japan.

"She is vulnerable; a little thing can hurt her" worries Soda, adding, "I'm aware that there could be some kind of attack from society. If something happens I'll have to overcome the problem together with her."

After he completed the film, Soda finally had time to sit with the clinic's hero, Dr. Yamamoto.

"I wanted to ask him so many things during the shooting, but I restrained myself from doing that. I knew, if I asked, the film would be about Dr. Yamamoto — the great doctor and his patients who beg him for help — and I didn't want to depict such a cliched picture" explains Soda.

"Dr. Yamamoto told me that the root of mental illness is that the sufferers are lonely and that to be fully cured they need to connect to another person. No matter how advanced the medicine is, in order to recover fully, they need to know that they are not isolated" says Soda. "I believe that one of the reasons why Dr. Yamamoto uses such an old-fashioned Japanese house as his clinic is to make it a most relaxing environment with tatami mats etc. — a place for them to meet others, become friends and make a community."

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