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‘Nihon no Higeki (Japan’s Tragedy)’

Sometimes the only thing to hope for is an end

by Mark Schilling

What is a good death? For certain Japanese Buddhist priests it was sokushinbutsu — self-mummification. As practiced by members of the Shingon sect, it was a decade-long process that culminated with the priest’s descent into a stone tomb to meditate in darkness, without food or water, until the final breath. After death, the priest’s body would naturally mummify as a permanent testimony to his spiritual strength and purity.

This is the unstated backdrop to Masahiro Kobayashi’s dark family drama “Nihon no Higeki (Japan’s Tragedy),” whose elderly hero Fujio (Tatsuya Nakadai) attempts his own version of this ancient and painful suicide method. Fujio’s motives are not religious but entirely personal, though his dilemma reflects larger events and trends in Japanese society.

The story begins after Fujio’s operation for lung cancer in Tokyo on March 11, 2011, and his decision to reject further treatment. Knowing he has only three months to live, he returns to his family home to commemorate the anniversary of his wife’s death, accompanied by his unemployed son, Yoshio (Kazuki Kitamura).

The next day, this former carpenter nails himself inside his room and tells Yoshio he intends to die there. “I’ll become a mummy,” he announces, and adds that he will have no further need of nourishment. Three months, he feels, is too long to wait until he can rejoin his beloved wife in whatever lies beyond. Sitting in front of her funeral photo, he begins to remember past times, both good and bad.

Yoshio, however, is not about to calmly accept his father’s sooner-than-expected exit. Instead, he pleads with and rages at the mostly silent man behind the sealed door.

And that, in a nutshell, is the story, since the element of suspense (will Yoshio survive?) never matters to Kobayashi, who also wrote the original script based on a true incident. He has long defied local conventions for commercial filmmaking, preferring to make uncompromising, unflinching studies of people living on the margins as social discards or misfits.

While the two main characters in “Japan’s Tragedy” fit that description, the film also focuses on that human universal, the cruelty of death, either natural or self-inflicted, that takes everything precious, with no chance of recourse.

Filmed almost entirely in black and white in Fujio’s Japanese-style house, with long, static takes and straight cuts, “Japan’s Tragedy” visually recalls the classics of Japanese cinema’s 1950s and ’60s Golden Age. But the severity of the film’s minimalism, with the camera never moving from the objective middle distance, as well as the extremity of Fujio’s actions and the explosiveness of Yoshio’s pent-up emotions are less Yasujiro Ozu than typically Kobayashi.

So why is the title “Japan’s Tragedy” instead of “Humanity’s Tragedy”? Fujio’s method of ending it all may be unusual, but suicide, as the film notes in an explanatory title, is all too common in Japan, with 27,766 taking their own lives in 2012 alone. Also, Yoshio’s situation — depressed and impoverished after losing his job as well as his ever-patient wife (Shinobu Terajima) and child in the 3/11 tsunami — reflects that of millions who struggle to make ends meet with tiny pension and welfare payments or part-time and temporary work.

All this may make “Japan’s Tragedy” sounds unremittingly gloomy, but as in much of Kobayashi’s work, there are primal forces bubbling beneath masks of stoicism or scorn — which in this film achieve extraordinarily concentrated form. Once a favorite of Akira Kurosawa and the star of Kobayashi’s “Haru to no Tabi (Haru’s Journey),” Nakadai portrays Fujio’s meditations on his family’s past and his own approaching death with a characteristic gravity and power, filmed in frontal head-and-shoulder shots that seem to peer directly into Fujio’s troubled soul.

In stark contrast to Nakadai’s stillness and centeredness, Kitamura is all raw emotion as Yoshio, which may surprise those who know him from his many roles as charismatic criminals. When Yoshio’s volatile mix of feelings toward his father, including anger, frustration, love and shame, slam against a wall of silence, he melts down in dramatic fashion. And yet Kobayashi’s discreet camera never milks his agony for audience tears, while Kitamura’s energy and intensity never flag.

Truth be told, it is not easy watching this extended breakdown (I started to imagine Fujio cutting through the door with a buzz saw to end it), but it is also the catalyst for an ending that is about as close as a Kobayashi film has ever come to uplifting.

My take away: When you go into that dark, cold night (not, I hope, into a living grave), you’d better have some good memories to keep you warm. And please leave the door open.

Fun fact: Unable to raise funding for “Nihon no Higeki” with only two weeks to go until the planned start of shooting, Kobayashi decided to underwrite the film himself.