Of Japanese medical melodramas there is no end. Targeted largely at the female audience, they appear on the lineups of Toho and other major distributors with the regularity of cherry blossoms in April.
What’s the attraction? It’s not as though the vast majority of viewers are in any immediate danger of being stricken down themselves. Perhaps if their lives were as endangered as the films’ suffering heroines (and a few heroes) they would prefer another form of entertainment. At least, I would: In my first conscious hours after major surgery many years ago, I wanted distraction in the form of a comic book, not a sob-fest.
Akihiko Shiota’s “Dakishimetai: Shinjitsu no Monogatari (I Just Wanna Hug You)” has a plot and even a catch-in-the-throat title typical of the genre. Based on the true story of a young Hokkaido woman who was left half-paralyzed and brain-damaged by a traffic accident, the film, as Shiota explains in a program note, is intended more as a celebration of her life than a depiction of her death in 2011 of a rare childbirth complication, acute fatty liver of pregnancy.
Shiota, whose past work ranges from serious indie dramas about troubled kids (2001′s “Gaichu [Harmful Insect]“) to effects-filled entertainment (“Dororo,” 2007), elides the sort of tear-jerking scenes considered de rigueur for the genre, as well as subverting the usual life-or-death suspense.
Nonetheless, the film wants to you to hug that important person in your life and, if you are a reviewer, feel like a louse for criticizing its account of an extraordinary woman’s heartbreaking story. But louse that I am, I ended up wishing I’d first seen the film’s companion documentary (see box) instead of Shiota’s by-the-book, sometimes crude attempts at dramatization.
The film begins five years after the death of its heroine, Tsukasa (Keiko Kitagawa). Her widowed husband Masami (Ryo Nishikido) is playing a spirited game of amateur basketball as their young son cheers him on. Later, the boy places an offering (from which he has taken a bite) on the family altar in front of his mother’s photo and innocently asks his father why she died.
The explanation begins six years earlier with Masami walking into a heated back-and-forth between his basketball teammates and a group of disabled people over the booking of a city-run court. The leader of the latter is the headstrong Tsukasa, who wins the argument — and is taken home in the cab of an impressed if somewhat intimidated Masami.
Despite being wheelchair-bound from her paralysis and memory-impaired due to her injuries, Tsukasa is still, in Masami’s eyes, an attractive woman — and his courting of her begins not long after her first fateful ride in his taxi.
His case of love at first sight is so acute that he not only schemes to become her regular driver and frequent dinner partner but abruptly breaks up with his girlfriend so he can devote himself exclusively to Tsukasa. Realizing that the intentions of this nice guy with the winningly crinkly smile are sincere, Tsukasa is inclined to reciprocate, though she can’t help having doubts.
The pure-hearted Masami, however, has none, even after his parents (Jun Kunimura and Kazue Tsunogae) and Tsukasa’s mother (Jun Fubuki) voice their strong opposition to his marriage plans.
So where does the drama come from? Poor Masami gets battered by various women in his life, beginning with a beer bottle smashed over his head by his angry girlfriend and continuing with a slap on the face from Tsukasa’s upset mom by way of introduction. Then there are the standard rage scenes, including full-throated exchanges of insults between Masami and his hard-headed father.
But everyone makes up with everyone else by the wedding and, soon after, the birth of the couple’s first child — a development telegraphed from the very beginning.
Despite having little in the way of surprises, the film does have Kitagawa’s solid performance as Tsukasa. She realistically portrays her character’s mental and physical disabilities without trying to draw attention to her own virtuosity. (See the many performances by Hollywood stars of disabled heroes for counter-examples.)
Meanwhile, pop star/actor Nishikido of the boy band Kanjani 8 is required only to play the purely devoted lover, husband and widower and, in one memorable scene, to walk on his hands, which he does to perfection.
Did Masami err in trying to have a child with a woman in less-than-optimal health? The film’s answer is an emphatic “no” — Tsukasa’s fatal condition, we are told, had nothing to do with her disabilities, and a lot to do with her bad luck in the genetic lottery. It’s hard not to feel immensely sorry for someone cut down so randomly after making such an enormous effort to recover and lead a normal life.
Whatever its faults, the film drives home the importance of now. Today’s joy, however hard-earned, is no guarantee of tomorrow.