Among all the many trips American film director Mike Mills has made to Japan since he first started coming here in the mid 1990s, one incident in particular has remained with him.

“One time, I was having coffee with a friend,” he told The Japan Times in a recent interview, “and in the middle of our conversation she took some anti-depressant pills out of her bag. Up to that time, I was aware she was having a bad time, having some problems. So I shouldn’t have been surprised. But watching her take those pills was a very strange moment for me. I realized that globalization had come this far — Western pharmaceutical treatments were being adopted and these pills, this American product, was actually being used to change brain chemistry in another country.”

Mills, who spoke as if he was reliving that moment, went on to say that the following year he saw an article in The New York Times about GlaxoSmithKline marketing its products in Japan. He took note, and got to thinking. But at the time he couldn’t foresee that the coffee shop incident would inspire him to make “Does Your Soul Have a Cold?” (Japanese title: “Mike Mills no Utsuno Hanashi”) — a documentary about depression in Japan.

The Japanese define depression as “the cold of the soul” but few are aware that was originally a marketing slogan for a major U.S. pharmaceutical company. Mills said that initially, he was skeptical about American pills selling in Japan, “because Japan has such a distinct culture, not at all like America’s.” But he quickly learned that the bulk of the nation’s health insurance system rests on people going to the hospital and being prescribed packets upon packets of pills. “I was so surprised when I found out,” he said. “And Japanese depression patients take more pills than Americans.”

Mills was fascinated by the phenomenon, and felt that he had a viable launchpad for the film. He decided to avoid a traditional documentary approach and rather than interviewing doctors, analysts or pharmaceutical representatives, he chose to concentrate on people suffering from depression, to tell their stories. He had two main criteria in choosing his subjects: 1) they had to be taking medication, and 2) they were willing to let Mills and his crew into their homes and point the camera at their daily routines. “All my films are about emotional lives,” Mills said. “Depression in Japan, or how depression is being treated in Japan — these seemed like really important issues. So I went ahead and did it.”

Didn’t Mills feel a little odd — that as an American filmmaker, he would opt for telling the story of depression in another country? “Yeah, I know, it felt strange to be doing that. But my creativity puts me in places that I never expected. It goes with the territory. And I liked that.”

Mills started planning “Does Your Soul Have a Cold?” in 2005 when he was in Japan to promote his film “Thumbsucker.” He started working on the film in 2007, and completed it that same year. Seven years later, “Does Your Soul Have a Cold?” finally got its theatrical release. Said Mills: “When I finished it, it seemed like no one wanted to see it. In the States, some festivals picked it up and I showed it at SXSW (the famed Austin, Texas-based music, art and film festival). But in Japan, we couldn’t get a distributor. Everyone pointed out that the film had no experts or people in authority explaining depression. And it was rambling, or overly structured. In many ways, it’s a very poetic film, more like Jim Jarmusch than what you’d expect from a documentary. I liked that edge but not everyone agreed with me.”

“Does Your Soul Have a Cold?” does feel fresh and untampered with. Initially there’s a bit of anxiety about feeling like a voyeur — especially since we go in knowing these are real people in the throes of genuine pain. But that dissipates quickly — the subjects seem upbeat and, more importantly, they seem to want to share their experiences. Mills and his Japanese staff called for depression sufferers online who were willing to cooperate — five were selected from hundreds of applicants. Mills was not a little moved by the fact that so many people were willing to open up and talk about their emotions.

“The Japanese are very different from Americans,” Mills said. “With Americans, you ask them to talk about their feelings, they’d be happy to do it — in fact, they could go on for hours until you’d have to tell them to stop. But the Japanese aren’t like that. I was so surprised they would open up to me. The fact that I’m an American probably worked in my favor —- because I’ve noticed that Japanese people don’t like making other Japanese people uncomfortable. So they would be less likely to talk about troubled emotions to other Japanese. But talking to an American who didn’t understand what they were saying and needed a simultaneous interpreter — well they could accept that. One of them (Ken) treated us like guests and I had to tell him, no Ken, you are the guest here.”

Mills himself has known depression: “I haven’t been as depressed as some of the people in the film but I do know what they’re going through. It’s like they were always translating back and forth from two different worlds at the same time. I have nothing but sympathy for depressed people and I was just so grateful they would talk to me. And they could see that, and so they really tried to help me out. That’s so different from Americans, who would participate in this sort of project with a different agenda — it’s more about them, and their own feelings. But I think Japan is still very much an agrarian society … people want to be part of the group and they want to contribute to society. They want to help, to support and pitch in, no matter if they’re depressed and feeling bad.”

In the years that have passed between making the film and seeing its release, Mills said that he has observed a change in Japanese society. “Since the earthquake and tsunami, I got the feeling that more people are talking, complaining, giving voice to what they really think. And that’s always good.” The old wisdom applies: talking about the bad stuff is better than taking meds.

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