The Japanese film industry loves medical melodramas, but not much ones with intellectually disabled characters. Director/scriptwriter Yoji Yamada’s enduringly popular Tora-san series (1969-96) featured one such character in its seventh installment, 1971′s “Otoko wa Tsurai yo: Funtohen (Tora-san, the Good Samaritan),” a spinning-mill worker (Rumi Sakakibara) who dislikes her job and becomes enamored of the feckless hero. Yamada later included an intellectually disabled student to the class taught by his night-school-teacher hero in his 1996 drama “Gakko II (A Class to Remember 2),” which he both scripted and directed.
Based on Takayuki Takuma’s hit play for the Tokyo Seleccion Deluxe theater troupe that is in turn based on a true story, Yukihiko Tsutsumi’s drama “Kuchizuke (Angel Home)” focuses on the intellectually disabled residents of the Himawariso (Sunflower House) group home and their caregivers and families.
Though best known as a commercial hit maker — he directed the money-spinning 2008-09 trilogy “20-Seiki Shonen (20th Century Boys),” among many others — Tsutsumi is also a veteran stage director (though he did not direct the stage version of “Angel Home”) and his film version of the play is frankly stagey, taking place almost entirely with the confines of the group home, which is quite roomy for a Japanese dwelling, with actors projecting to the third balcony (of the theater, not the house).
As the play did so successfully for audiences around Japan, the film focuses on specific individuals in the home, from their unruly emotions to sometimes tragic fates, rather than document the problems of the intellectually disabled in the larger community. So we are told that residents leave the home to work, but we never see them on the job.
Instead the story follows the friendship — and inconvenient love — that develops between the sweet, demure Mako (Shihori Kanjiya) and the loud, volatile Uyan (Takayuki Takuma). Since Takuma not only wrote the play but also originated the role of Uyan on stage, it’s no surprise that this character is central to both the story and the film’s view of the intellectually disabled.
It’s not a view that everyone will accept, since Uyan does not fit the mold of “innocent” and “pure” disabled heroes found in films from Hollywood and elsewhere. Instead, he gesticulates oddly and behaves rudely and at times violently. Rather than a harmless eccentric with a child’s mind, he is an angry man who understands his situation — and resents his well-meaning caregivers, as well as society as whole, for keeping him from functioning fully as an adult, including the adult experience of love.
So when he proposes marriage to Mako and she innocently if enthusiastically accepts, he creates a dilemma for those around him, especially Mako’s father (Naoto Takenaka), a former manga artist who has kept his pen name Aijo Ippon (rough translation: All for Love).
Following the untimely death of Mako’s mother, he gave up his career to raise his daughter — and now that she is fully grown he can’t bear to see her hurt. And he worries that her relationship with Uyan, now spinning out control, will end badly. He also fears for Mako’s future when he is gone and unable to protect her.
Thus the story, which begins as a group portrait of life in Himawariso, with leavenings of broad humor and pointed reminders about the outside world’s prejudice, narrows finally to the triangle of Uyan, Mako and Ippon. In the process, it becomes unabashedly emotional, with all the layers of irony stripped away. It also arrives at a turning point that may strike some as a throwback to an older, darker era. I squirmed myself, though to explain why would give too much away. Enough to say that “Angel Home” does not deliver easy assurances to the comfortable. Hollywood will not be clamoring for remake rights.
But the play packed theaters when it toured four Japanese cities in 2010, and the film earned high marks in an audience poll when it had its world premiere at the Udine Far East Film Festival in April. I only hope that in Japan it opens more eyes to not just the plight of the intellectually disabled, but their humanity in all its various shades, obnoxiousness included.
Fun fact: Ikumi Kumagai, who supplies the theme song “Goodbye My Love” for “Kuchizuke,” also worked with Tsutsumi on his 2012 documentary about her tsunami-devastated hometown, “Kesennuma, Voices.”