bokushi_B5_01“It is very difficult to say what is right and what is not right” a conflicted pastor laments, reflecting on perceived past failings and the sad death of a man who eventually took his own life despite the best efforts of all to help him find a way to go on living. Atsushi Kasezawa’s documentary A Step Forward (牧師といのちの崖, Bokushi to Inochi no Gake) follows a small-town pastor who is on constant call near a series of rocky cliffs which attract both cheerful tourists and those looking for a way out of life’s suffering.

Pastor Yoichi Fujiyabu works with a local suicide prevention charity to try and rescue vulnerable people who might be thinking of taking their own lives. So common is suicide at the clifftop, that the society has erected a sign urging those in distress to reconsider with a number they can call for help. Of course, sometimes other people call too which seems to be the case with the first incident we see in which Fujiyabu spends two hours patiently trying to coax a middle-aged woman away from the cliff edge, eventually taking her back to the rectory and offering her a place to stay.

Suicide prevention does not just end at the clifftop. Fujiyabu also runs a rehabilitation centre which, as his wife later suggests, becomes a kind of “home” for those who feel they no longer have anywhere else to go. Though there may not be any one reason someone decides they have no option other than to end their life, it remains true that many of the people Fujiyabu saves have either lost or become estranged from their families and feel themselves to be alone in the world. The Fujiyabus aim to provide them with the safety net of a place they know they can always return to so that they can begin to rebuild their lives and ultimately return to mainstream society.

Then again, as Mrs. Fujiyabu also points out, they are not “suicide experts” or trained psychologists, just compassionate people trying to do their best to help those in need. Thus they are quite honest about the fact that their work is often emotionally difficult or frustrating, and that though they do their best to love and support everyone there will inevitably be people in life that you cannot like or get along with. Nevertheless, they do what they can with what they know in the hope that the people in their care will eventually be able to leave and become independent. To help in practical as well as emotional ways, they also run a small not for profit bento shop where they employ some of the people Fujiyabu has saved from the cliffs. Working brings many benefits aside from the ability to earn a wage, giving the rescued men and women a new sense of being useful while allowing them to learn new skills surrounded by people in a similar situation so they can perhaps begin to feel less lonely and alone.

It’s just that sense of existential loneliness that Mori, a young man to whom Kasezawa devotes special attention, is seeking to escape. Though he was surrounded by people and in regular contact with his family, Mori always felt at a painful distance from those around him – something which seems to have decreased thanks to the communal lifestyle of the rehabilitation station. When he tries to move on, however, he quickly encounters the same old difficulties as he feels himself disliked by his colleagues, unable to fit in to the point that his therapist eventually advises him to quit for the sake of his mental health. Meanwhile, Fujiyabu, to whom he returns, gently tries to explain to him that he’s living well beyond his means – something that he seems to understand on one level but is entirely unable to rectify.

Fujiyabu, well-meaning as he is, quickly becomes irritated by Mori’s inability, or he wonders lack of will, to change. This is perhaps a little unfair in that he fails to consider the various ways that Mori maybe be unable to conform to the standards he expects for a grown man in his society, thereby failing to find effective methods to help him with the areas of life he seems to have the most trouble with – appropriate social interactions, and executive functioning. Being berated for being selfish and irresponsible when he simply does not understand only adds to his sense of despair and conviction that he is unwanted by the world around him. Though many of the people arriving at the church have more obvious motives to end their lives – debt problems, marital breakdown, career ruin etc, there are also those like Mori who struggle to find acceptance in a fiercely conformist society which perhaps hasn’t yet woken up to the needs of those who “cannot read the air”.

As Fujiyabu says it’s difficult to know what to do for the best. That first lady we saw him save eventually decided to leave the centre and Fujiyabu, after all, has no real right to stop her only to make sure she knows what’s she’s doing. He has to wonder if suicide is a valid choice for those whose suffering is incurable and if, after all, it’s all a part of God’s plan. Nevertheless, he resolves to carry on doing what he can to help those in pain find the will to live again. Director Atsushi Kasezawa approaches the most sensitive of subjects with a compassionate, yet unflinching eye, hinting at the entrenched social problems which cause mass despair as well as the toll taken on those who are determined to help.


A Step Forward was screened as part of Japan Cuts 2019.

Original trailer (English subtitles)

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