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The documentary “While We Kiss the Sky” (Japanese title “Kofuku wa Hibi no Naka Ni”) opens nationwide this weekend, and it proffers a lot of hope and optimism for the future of Japanese society.

Directed by German filmmaker Werner Penzel (“Step Across the Border”) and his wife and photographer Ayako Mogi, the film takes the audience on a tour of the activities inside Shobu Gakuen — an institution for the mentally challenged in Kagoshima Prefecture.

Defying expectations, it’s an eye-opener of a film, at which audiences are likely to be astonished, even awed, at the way patients live and spend their time in this facility, which reveals itself to appear more of an artists’ commune than an institution. Outside visitors find themselves more than welcome, as the place has a cafe/restaurant, and the grounds even has a soba restaurant and resident-run bakery. At Shobu Gakuen, the idea is for its resident patients to interact with the outside world as much as possible, and that by doing so change our standard of what constitutes “normal.”

“Maybe in Japan, just as in Germany, we are entrapped in our prejudices about what is ‘normal’ or not,” said Werner Penzel in an email interview. The point of Shobu Gakuen, he explained, is to present a forum where everyone can “enjoy reality together, without focusing on differences.”

You’d think such a thing isn’t possible in Japan’s strongly conservative and uniformed society but apparently, it is.

“While We Kiss the Sky” opens nationwide on July 2.

In line with COVID-19 guidelines, the government is strongly requesting that residents and visitors exercise caution if they choose to visit bars, restaurants, music venues and other public spaces.

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