Here’s a confession: I’m not a big reader of manga, including the many that have been made into Japanese films. Given the limited amount of reading time I have left on Earth, I’d rather spend it with Proust than “Gantz.” So sue me.
One exception: Tenten Hosokawa’s “Tsure ga Utsu ni Narimashite” (literally “Tsure Has Become Depressed”) series, of which I devoured volume after volume. Based on the true story of how Hosokawa and her salaryman husband coped with his long bout of depression, the manga was honest and unsparing, but also gently humorous and usefully informative. Unlike the usual misery memoir, it didn’t turn its subject into a martyr or hero. Instead it insisted on his human ordinariness, as well as the commonness of his illness. (“Depression,” his doctor sagely tells him, “is like a spiritual cold.”)
Kiyoshi Sasabe’s film adaptation (with the odd English title “My S.O. Has Depression”) respects the manga’s spirit, while softening its story for the mainstream audience expecting a cute, warm-hearted relationship drama. But Sasabe, who has made other films mixing fact and fiction — such as 2007’s “Yunagi no Machi Sakura no Kuni (Yunagi City, Sakura Country),” about Hiroshima atomic bombing survivors, and 2006’s “Deguchi no Nai Umi (Sea Without Exit),” about World War II suicide submarine pilots — also describes the not-so-uplifting side of depression, from marital discord to attempted suicide, with unsentimental directness.
I was surprised, actually, that anyone would make the comic into a film, but “My S.O.” is a big commercial title, with Aoi Miyazaki and Masato Sakai — two of the few current young stars who also happen to be true actors – playing the couple and Toei, a major distributor better known for its action titles, handling the release. (A three-episode TV series that aired in 2009 passed under my radar.)
Miyazaki is Haruko, aka Haru, a struggling manga artist, and Sakai is Mikio, nicknamed “Tsure,” a salaryman who fields customer complaints for a foreign-owned IT company — a job designed to depress just about anyone. A sincere, hard-working type, Tsure is especially susceptible.
Meanwhile, Haru’s manga serial is dropped by her editor, just as Tsure suffers his first breakdown. He tries to persevere, but can barely walk out of the house, let alone do his job. His sympathetic doctor diagnoses him with depression — and tells him it will take at least half a year to recover. Haru, an understanding type, urges him to quit his company: They’ll manage somehow. On the verge of total collapse, he reluctantly agrees.
So far so ideal, but Tsure’s struggle is just beginning. For those who have never known it, depression may seem similar or equivalent to “the dumps” — a state that can be shaken off with a funny movie, a brisk walk or a date with Mr. Johnnie Walker. Tsure, however, is not only tortured with feelings of worthlessness, but also drained of energy. Even the simplest task — making a phone call or walking out the door — requires a titanic effort. Instead he hides in his futon and weeps like a frightened child.
Haru says the right things to her husband, “Ganbaranai” (“Don’t strain yourself”) being among the most pertinent, but the stress of caring for him while trying to restart her career builds and finally explodes.
Here is where many a Japanese drama would unleash the histrionics. Miyazaki and Sakai, who also played a married couple in the 2008 NHK taiga maxi-drama “Atsuhime,” turn up the volume, but without distorting their characters’ nature or essentially strong relationship with each other.
Sakai is especially good at this balancing act, playing Tsure as a real, if nerdy, human in real pain, rather than the sort of cartoon simulacrum often seen in manga-to-film adaptations. Miyazaki, Japan’s answer to a young Julia Roberts, turns on her trademark 1,000-watt smile, but can also look almost scarily focused — a necessary quality for an artist who hopes to succeed at her work, as well as at curing her husband.
Most of Haru and Tsure’s interactions, though, are low-key, gentle-spirited and even comic, much like the manga itself. And watching over the action with inscrutable calm is Igu, their pet iguana, who serves as everything from a green guardian spirit to, in one comic but somehow plausible moment, rescuer.
Those who have experienced depression firsthand may complain that the film’s soft-focus treatment distorts the illness’s grimmer realities, but this approach makes Tsure’s story palatable to the many for whom mental illness is frighteningly alien. It also tells the valuable truth that help is available and recovery always possible.
Too bad hardly anyone abroad will get the message: “My S.O.” is not arty enough for prestigious festivals, not cult enough for foreign fanboys. But if you or your loved ones ever fall into the grip of what Winston Churchill, a depressive himself, called “the black dog,” the film has some good advice: Listen to your inner iguana, who sees all but judges not.