From A Step Forward (courtesy Japan Society)

In Japan, walls of solitude can form easily. The country has an alarmingly high suicide rate, a rapidly aging population, and an increasing number of recluses, or hikikomori. In a culture that has long valued stoicism and self-reliance, what can bring people back from total withdrawal? Often, the simple act of witnessing the circumstances of someone in crisis can at least serve as a starting point. This recognition can also engender understanding of people with physical disabilities, who can be similarly isolated. In three new documentaries screening at the JAPAN CUTS festival, filmmakers attempt to capture the inner lives of people cut off from the world, and to confront the idea that any form of seclusion is truly self-imposed. 

Sandanbeki Cliff in Wakayama has gained a reputation as a popular suicide location. In A Step Forward, director Atsushi Kasezawa takes us to a small church near the cliff, whose priest runs a suicide hotline and offers callers housing and employment at a restaurant he runs. The idea is to tie them to a larger purpose and give them something to work toward. In Japan, suicide is often linked to unemployment and divorce, which traditionally bring on a strong judgment of shame or failure. Some of the footage is intimate almost to the point of feeling invasive — a woman sits in the passenger seat of the priest’s car, hunched over and clearly shaken, minutes after nearly jumping. Men speak candidly about suicide, a form of confession outside of their “pep talks” with the priest, in which he earnestly tries to relate to them but comes closer to bullying them into changing their attitudes. The camera’s proximity to its subjects makes the viewer feel as though they are themselves straddling the line between life and death. 

From I Go Gaga, My Dear (courtesy Japan Society)

In I Go Gaga, My Dear, director Naoko Nobutomo paints a similarly intimate portrait of her subjects, who happen to be her parents. In the spirit of works like Chantal Akerman’s No Home Movie and Ross McElwee’s Bright Leaves, Nobutomo tells the audience as much about herself as she does her family, even as she mostly hides behind the camera. She follows her parents, both in their 90s, as they struggle to maintain their independent lifestyles amidst their deteriorating mental and physical health — her mother has dementia, and her father’s hearing has been in decline for years. 

Nobutomo previously documented her own struggle with breast cancer for television, and weaves footage from that project into Gaga as a way of contrasting her mother’s current condition with her former liveliness. “I wanted to give her my breasts, but she said they’re too saggy,” she jokes in the hospital during her daughter’s treatment. It’s easy to grow fond of the old couple, who maintain a steadfast, if not stubborn, hold on what they love, including one another. Nobutomo is sometimes caught between the role of daughter and filmmaker, leaving her camera on its tripod to attend to her mother as she experiences a moment of confusion or a suicidal mood swing. Like A Step Forward, it’s so frank and intimate as to almost feel invasive. But by not shying away from such moments, both films offer validation not just to their subjects, but also to anyone who’s experienced similar circumstances. 

From Night Cruising (courtesy Japan Society)

Makoto Sasaki’s Night Cruising documents another admirable display of empathy, this time with the goal of bridging the physical gap between blind and sighted individuals. The film follows blind musician Hideyuki Kato as he attempts to create a sci-fi action film called Ghost Vision. It takes a herculean effort to translate Kato’s “inner vision” to the big screen; there’s hardly any language to express something non-visually in cinema. The film is as much about Kato learning to make a movie as it is about his collaborators — from special effects engineers to art directors, actors, and wardrobe assistants — trying to unlearn their reliance on sight. Kato casts his actors by touching their faces, and learns about color in order to guide the creation of sets and costumes. Motion capture sensors recreate his unique way of moving for a CGI version of himself. Kato even becomes acquainted with his own body for the first time via a 3D model. “Wow! Who’s this guy? My torso’s quite thick, I see,” he chuckles. 

Ghost Vision is about an action hero whose blindness is his strength, and Sasaki often treats Kato as the superhero of his documentary. It’s reminiscent of Les Blank’s treatment of Werner Herzog in Burden of Dreams, with equal amounts awe and skepticism. “Maybe I can share my vision,” Kato says when asked why he’s making this film. He then corrects himself: “I’m not sure ‘vision’ is the right word. I can turn the images I have into a movie.” Here, the effort of reaching across a seemingly impenetrable divide yields a film, a work that can be universally enjoyed. 

These films and more will be playing as part of JAPAN CUTS at Japan Society (333 East 47 Street, New York), running July 19-28.

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Susannah Gruder

Susannah Gruder is a writer born and raised in Brooklyn. Her film criticism has been published in Reverse Shot, Bright Wall/Dark Room, MUBI Notebook, and IndieWire. She graduated from Kenyon College with...