The Japanese suicide rate has fallen for eight straight years, to 21,321 in 2017, but this number is still high compared to other advanced countries, and is course of no consolation to the families of those who take their own lives.

The effect of suicide on one such family is the theme of “Lying to Mom,” the first feature by Katsumi Nojiri, a 43-year-old who rose through the assistant directing ranks. It is based on Nojiri’s original script, which was in turn inspired by the suicide of his own brother.

The film, though, is not a docudrama slice of life. Instead it recycles tried-and-true formulas of the local family drama genre, from the comic to the tear-jerking, while addressing the difficulty — or impossibility — of answering the question, “Why?”

Lying to Mom (Suzuki-ke no Uso)
Run Time 133 mins.
Opens Nov. 16

It begins disturbingly with the reclusive Koichi (Ryo Kase) hanging himself in his room in his parents’ house. When his mother, Yuko (Hideko Hara), discovers him, she tries to cut him down but cuts herself instead and falls unconscious. Coming to in the hospital, she remembers nothing of her son’s death, to the consternation of her husband, Sachio (Ittoku Kishibe), her daughter, Fumi (Mai Kiryu), her acid-tongued sister-in-law, Kimiko (Kayoko Kishimoto) and her easy-going brother, Hiroshi (Nao Omori), who has just started a new business importing shrimp from Argentina.

Then Fumi blurts out that Koichi has left for Argentina to work for Hiroshi. Everyone backs her up, to Yuko’s joy, though they soon realize that maintaining the fiction of Koichi’s expatriation will not be easy.

This section is busy light comedy, with Fumi and the others creating a new life for Koichi, from fake letters to a redecorated room. Meanwhile, Fumi joins a support group for the bereaved. Hesitant at first, she begins to bond with other members, including a woman who lost her 14-year-old daughter to suicide, but Fumi can’t bring herself to tell her own story.

Then the family’s elaborate ruse begins to farcically unravel, but as this strained story reaches its climax, more truths emerge, from Fumi’s real feelings toward Koichi to what actually happened on the day of his death. Here the film drops its folksy humor and sentimentality to reveal the feelings Koichi’s presence — and absence — evoked.

In Kase’s brief, pitch-perfect turn we also see Koichi’s agony in both the silent clarity and the explosive rawness, though the mystery of his suicide is never fully explained.

Kase’s performance is matched by that of Kiryu as Fumi. A newcomer who impressed as a spunky female sumo wrestler in Takahisa Zeze’s “The Chrysanthemum and the Guillotine,” Kiryu seethes as she holds in Fumi’s secrets, but when she finally erupts her anger comes from a dark history, not surface histrionics.

The film’s lesson is that lies may soothe, but real catharsis — and acceptance — comes from the truth. This may strike some — I am thinking specifically of that 14-year-old girl’s mother — as too convenient. Also, the film’s subplots, particularly a lengthy search for Koichi’s sex worker lover (if that’s what she was) distract, while its mysticism, embodied by a tiny bat that seems to house Koichi’s soul, is a clichéd explanation for the inexplicable.

“Lying to Mom” gets one big thing right, though: The Suzukis will never be the same, even if Koichi were to arrive on the next flight from Buenos Aires.

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