Survivor guilt is a common outcome of war, natural disasters or anything that produces victims and survivors linked by blood, friendship or other ties. Why did you die but not me? Why couldn’t I save you? The questions gnaw, and outsiders have no real answers.
This guilt is a theme of Masakazu Sugita’s minimalist elegiac debut feature, “Hitono Nozomino Yorokobiyo” (“Joy of Man’s Desiring”), which premiered in the Generation section of the 2014 Berlin International Film Festival — a section intended for children and teenagers.
The film, which Sugita also scripted, was informed by his experiences as a 14-year-old in Kobe during the 1995 Great Hanshin Earthquake, in which more than 6,000 people died.
However, the film’s earthquake, which kills the parents of 12-year-old Haruna (Ayane Omori) and 5-year-old Shota (Riku Ohishi), is not named. All we see at the beginning is Haruna, still clad in her pajamas, trying silently and desperately to extract something from underneath the rubble. Soon after, we see her and little Shota, still unaware that Mom and Dad are dead, at their parents’ funeral. Haruna is bearing up, though “bravely” is not the adverb that applies. Instead, her expression is watchful, clenched and hard to read: Is she trying to spare Shota’s feelings by not bursting forth with the truth? Or is she just holding in her own tears?
The children are taken into the home of their well-meaning aunt (Naoko Yoshimoto) and uncle (Koichiro Nishi) in Unzen, Kyushu. Their relatives’ son Katsutoshi (Shumpei Oba), who is older than Shota but younger than Haruna, is at first friendly to the newcomers, but he resents it when his mother gushingly pampers his little cousin. And he hates it when his pals tease him about his new “sister and brother.” An explosion is in the making.
Meanwhile, the strain of comforting and lying to Shota — who misses his parents terribly — begins to wear on Haruna. She makes an effort to be accepted at her new school, even practicing her smile in front of the mirror before her first day of class, but remains friendless and lonely, as well as haunted by the memory of the earthquake. Inevitably, she begins to crack and break.
Rather than melodramatically pumping up this story in approved TV drama-style, Sugita tamps it down. He is aided by cinematographer Yoshio Kitagawa’s rich yet restrained color palette, with its melancholic end-of-summer mood, and Shingo Inaoka’s spare, repetitive piano score, which underlines Haruna’s feeling of being in suspended animation — neither free of the past nor fully in the present. If anything, the film goes too far in this suggest-not-tell direction, with the children walking solemnly, wordlessly and endlessly down one road, path or corridor after another, either alone or together. I understood the intent, but longed for shorter cuts and — heresy! — more explanation.
Haruna’s grim determination to hold it all in nonetheless rings true to anyone who knows or has ever been a proud, sensitive kid with one finger in the emotional dike. Her lengthy silence, however, risks obscuring the survivor’s-guilt theme, as other interpretations, including pre-adolescent moodiness, become possible.
But when her dike does finally burst, the source of her pain becomes heartrendingly clear. This is in large part due to Omori’s performance as Haruna, which is all compression and focus as she moves through scene after long one-cut scene, seldom out of camera range. This could have become simply monotonous, but her sisterly interactions with her small co-star, Ohishi, show us less of an outwardly wary than an inwardly tormented side of her character.
The film’s climax aims for a resolution more poetic than realistic. Once again Sugita holds his key shot several beats too long, while tacking on an ending that feels good but doesn’t quite convince.
The truth is that for many, survivor’s guilt never goes away and, too often, ruins or shortens lives. I’m hoping that the Harunas created by this country’s endless disasters — natural and manmade — won’t be among them.
Fun fact: “Hitono Nozomino Yorokobiyo” (“Joy of Man’s Desiring”) was awarded a Special Mention — i.e., second prize — by the children’s jury in the Generation Kplus competition at the 64th Berlin International Film Festival.