Getting the Japanese to talk about their emotions is said to be like pulling teeth, but getting depressed Japanese to bare their souls is like unlocking the mysteries of quantum physics. And yet in the documentary “Does Your Soul Have a Cold?,” “Thumbsucker” director Mike Mills does just that. A cinematic equivalent of a sympathetic family doctor, the film certainly knows how to listen to its subjects. Really listen, without being intrusive or making hasty diagnoses.

And why would an American filmmaker be interested in making a documentary about depressed Japanese people? After all, aren’t there more than enough samplings to pick and choose from in the U.S., a culture that thrives on over-the-counter antidepressants?

In the production notes Mills addresses that very subject, saying that happiness is a huge part of the American cultural fabric and that the nation has made a lucrative industry out of the notion that unhappiness should be remedied immediately, with medication. That notion, exported to Japan and the rest of the world, has certainly influenced the way manic-depressive patients are treated here. Apparently, Mills felt a certain degree of responsibility.

Does Your Soul Have a Cold? ("Mike Mills no Utsu no Hanashi)
Director Mike Mills
Run Time 82 minutes
Language Japanese (subtitled in English)
Opens Opens Oct. 19, 2013

On the other hand, the traditional Japanese approach to people whose “souls have colds” — as depression is often described on these shores — is to pretend that everything’s fine. Expressing pain or excessive concern has never flown very well here. No one knew, really, how to deal with the cold of the soul, and if things got too bad, well, there was always suicide. The Japanese suicide rate was over 30,000 a year between 1998 and 2012. Not all of these are necessarily depression-related, but depression is likely one of the trigger factors. It is a condition with which over a million Japanese are now diagnosed.

Much to Mills’ credit, this isn’t a talking-heads documentary; no doctors, analysts or pharmaceutical company PR men making their pro-meds statements. Instead, he has people recounting their stories and describing their daily routines, and in that process the film reveals the path from feeling under the weather to having full-fledged depression.

Especially disturbing is the example of two women who trawl the Net when they suspect their own symptoms to indicate depression — and in doing so, they hit upon websites run by pharmaceutical companies that put up self-analyzing questionnaires. These lead the women straight to the conclusion that they should take the recommended medication sold by those companies.

Ultimately, though, the film is bathed in a soft light of hope. Mills’ gaze is full of warmth, and you can feel him silently rooting for these people as they try to quit the pills and find their own equilibrium.

Shot in 2007 (yes, it’s taken this long to hit the theaters), some of the people depicted in the film have recovered from their soul-colds, found full-time jobs or been able to move out of their parents’ places and get their own apartments. Still, it’s a long and arduous journey even to glimpse the light at the end of the tunnel. And the film never pretends otherwise.

For a chance to win one of five pairs of tickets to “Does Your Soul Have a Cold?,” visit jtimes.jp/film.

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