Of the 17,500 cases of uterine cancer reported yearly in Japan, nearly half are cervical cancer, usually triggered by a virus spread by sexual intercourse. Because of this, sufferers often conceal the fact from friends and families and continue working at their jobs as if nothing is wrong — until pain and exhaustion catch up.
Yet who can blame women for their silence? Cervical cancer comes with a social stigma and, once the secret is out, a woman’s chances for marriage, career stability and social respect could well be destroyed overnight.
Director Yasuyuki Ebihara’s first feature film, “Inochi no Call: Mrs. Inga wo Shitte Imasuka?” (“Lifeline: Do You Know Mrs. Inga?”), tells the tale of a young woman who is newly married and in the clutches of cervical cancer.
In the film, Tamaki (Misako Yasuda) discovers she has cervical cancer just before her marriage to Takashi (Kenki Yamaguchi). Ebihara and screenwriter Akio Nanki pull no punches in tracing her tragedy: Following surgical removal of her uterus and ovaries, Tamaki transforms from a happy, spirited young woman to a depressed recluse, unable to get out of bed or function as a housewife. Though he is supportive at first, the burden begins to weigh on Takashi. At the same time, he can’t get over the suspicion that Tamaki slept around before they met, and that this was the direct cause of her illness.
“There’s no denying it, this isn’t a happy story,” Ebihara tells The Japan Times. “The terrible thing about a disease such as cervical cancer is that no one walks away undamaged. Takashi isn’t a bad guy, but he lacks knowledge and information, and so he’s not in an ideal position to help his wife.
“In this respect, Tamaki is in the same boat. If she had been aware beforehand of cervical cancer, its causes and consequences, she could have protected herself by going through an exam.”
The symptoms include acute abdominal pain, sudden loss of motor control, nervousness and chronic fatigue. Any woman with a sexual relationship is at risk, even if she has only one partner. This is why it’s best to get an annual checkup, as recommended by almost every municipal office in Japan.
“This really shouldn’t be a women-only issue,” says Ebihara. “What a lot of men in this country fail to realize is that it takes two to have a sexual relationship, two to get married, have a baby and start a family. The traditional male stance has been to step back and let women handle much of the responsibility of life issues.”
It’s rare to hear such words from a Japanese man, and a Kyushu danji at that. (Men from Kyushu, in southern Japan, are considered to make particularly domineering husbands.) Hailing from Miyazaki Prefecture, Ebihara, 32, grew up in what he describes as “a typical Kyushu household,” meaning that the father has the last word but stays clear of the actual day-to-day work involved in running a home and raising the kids.
On the other hand, Ebihara stresses: “My father isn’t mean in any way; in fact he’s a kind, fair person. But he’s still a man of tradition, as I think many Japanese men are. They (men) can’t understand what women go through in life, and they’re certainly uninformed about things like cervical cancer.”
Ebihara himself, however, is alert to the “position of the socially defenseless,” as we say in Japan — though he himself prefers to use the term “troubled people who tend to be misunderstood by society.” In Ebihara’s view, sufferers of cervical cancer are especially vulnerable, because they tend to be relatively young women who have much to lose by admitting they have a problem, and because the disease is a sexual one. “Unfortunately, this affects only women,” says Ebihara. “So it’s very hard for men to relate, and to empathize.”
Ebihara’s project was inspired and aided by film producer Mayumi Watanabe, who came up with the idea of making a movie about cervical cancer. She herself died of the disease in 2012.
“One of the things I learned from Watanabe is the amount of discrimination surrounding cervical cancer,” says Ebihara. “Patients are left defenseless against prejudice and discrimination, and often they have nowhere to turn. That simply shouldn’t happen.”
“Inochi no Call” is now showing.