“Wow, the weather turned bad quickly, huh?”
Filmmaker Eiji Han Shimizu is looking out at the narrow street from the safety of a Shibuya cafe. A storm is approaching. In spite of that, there’s a little smile on his face.
One could argue that the smile is just there because Shimizu is promoting his new film. He in turn would argue that the smile is there because he has spent six years researching the causes of happiness. The result of all that work is the documentary feature “Happy,” which will open in Tokyo on May 12 and in theaters around the country after that.
Much of the documentary examines the state of happiness in Japan. And, unhappily, the news isn’t very good.
“The Japanese are trying to be happy,” Shimizu tells The Japan Times. “I see my friends and neighbors working so hard to find happiness; they’re sweating to get over that wall. And they climb and climb, but when they reach the top, they realize it is the wrong wall.”
The team behind “Happy” wants to expose the right way to happiness.
The idea for a documentary about being happy first appeared in the head of Tom Shadyac, a Hollywood director and producer who helmed comedies such as “Bruce Almighty” and “Ace Ventura: Pet Detective.” He read an article about Bangladesh being the happiest nation in the world and it puzzled him. He looked around: He lived in Beverly Hills, California. He was surrounded by some of the richest and most famous people on the planet — but no one seemed very happy. If fame and fortune don’t bring happiness, he thought, what does?
Shadyac commissioned award-winning documentary filmmaker Roko Belic (“Genghis Blues”) to find out, and Belic asked his good friend Shimizu to join the project. Shimizu quit his well-paid job in Tokyo and headed for San Francisco.
“I moved in to Roko’s house and we worked on the film in his basement. It was very indie,” Shimizu says, still smiling.
The documentary features personal stories from people who you’d think would not be happy, but who are anyway. From a run-over beauty queen whose disfigured face caused her husband to leave her, to the poor people of India, the movie finds happiness in the oddest places. Shimizu and Belic traveled to six countries and talked to thousands of people, who all had one thing in common:
“It sounds cheesy, but it’s true — there are no selfish happy people. The unhappiest people are self-centered and egoistic,” Shimizu says.
The greatest surprise for him was how much a feeling of connection with other people can enhance one’s happiness. Every scientist he met talked about the importance of a feeling of community, and the effects of social connection became clear when the film crew visited a poor rickshaw driver in the slums of Kolkata.
“His closeness with his neighbors was so tight,” recalls Shimizu. “He knew that if he was in trouble, his neighbors would help and support him, and he would do the same for them. He and his family barely had any money, but they had trust and solidarity in their life. In Japan, you have to buy insurance to get that kind of safety.”
Japan ranks well below average on the OECD Happiness Index, and it does not come off well in the documentary, which at one point focuses on the hectic work life in cities such as Tokyo and Osaka.
Shizimu was once a part of the Tokyo rat race, but since working on “Happy” he has changed his lifestyle by making it simpler. He has moved from Tokyo to Bali, where he says he lives in an almost empty house and owns just a few items of clothing. But he stresses that you don’t have to escape to a tropical island to become happy. Quite the opposite: He believes it is possible — and necessary — for Japan to become happier as a nation:
“For centuries, the business model for Japan has been to work hard, walk in line and follow orders,” he says. “But now the other countries in Asia have caught up with us in terms of production, so that model doesn’t work anymore. We have to find a new way of doing business; we have to be more creative and take more risks. All the research shows that happy people do exactly that.”