“Datte, shoganai janai?” The subject of Yoshifumi Tsubota’s empathetic documentary asks, stoically accepting disappointment with a resigned, well What Can You Do About It? (だってしょうがないじゃない). Recently diagnosed with ADHD, 41-year-old Tsubota documents his friendship with a relative diagnosed with a Pervasive Developmental Disorder, in his case autism with mild learning difficulties, as he tries to come to terms with the many changes in his life from the death of his mother some years previously to the impending prospect of having to leave his childhood home and enter a residential facility. 

Born in 1957, Makoto had lived alone with his mother for over 40 years before she passed away. Leaving education after middle school, he drifted around in various jobs before joining the SDF with which he served until returning home on his father’s death and is now in his early 60s. Yoshifumi’s aunt, Machiko, has become his legal guardian, helping him get the PDD diagnosis and sorting him out with a pension while managing his money and just generally watching over him. Other than Machiko, whom he refers to as a sister, Makoto is also visited by a series of helpers who assist him with day to day matters such as cleaning and grocery shopping he otherwise finds difficult. 

As his grocery helper points out, sometimes it can take a while for Makoto to fully understand why something is not working out the way he expected. In the case of shopping, he forgets about his budget and puts everything he wants into the basket only for the helper to remind him that he needs to put something back because he’s run out of money. He also gets himself into trouble with Machiko after asking Yoshifumi to go shopping with him and splurging on new trainers just because he liked them, lying that Yoshifumi had bought them for him and remorseful about potentially getting Yoshifumi into trouble. The biggest problem, however, is with a seemingly pernickety neighbour who has been making complaints about Makoto’s sometimes eccentric behaviour, especially his strange habit of going out late at night and throwing plastic carrier bags in the air just because he enjoys seeing them dance in the wind. He knows he needs to change, but finds it impossible to stop. 

Makoto’s compulsions worry Machiko who recalls a previous occasion on which he almost started a fire idly playing with matches. She is also alarmed on discovering a pornographic magazine he’d hidden in his figurine cabinet, paranoid that he might harm someone, unable to control himself or understand what might be considered inappropriate. Machiko’s rather prurient reaction appears to cause Makoto a great deal of anxiety despite Yoshifumi’s reassurance that most men have similar magazines and looking at them, so long as that’s all it is, is perfectly healthy whatever Machiko might say to the contrary. 

Meanwhile, he’s acutely worried about the prospect of being forced out of his family home and realising that if something happens to Machiko there will be no one left to look after him. After his mother’s death, Makoto had announced a sudden intention to marry a beautiful woman, but, as it turns out, only to get himself another mother. Two older women who come to chat with him as part of a community outreach programme try to talk him out of it, persuading him that wives and mothers are different, something which apparently took a little time for him to fully understand. When a cherry tree in the garden has to be cut down, he finds it very distressing as if he no longer recognises his home as his own with only two trees when there had always been three.

Yoshifumi too is looking for acceptance and understanding, explaining to Makoto and the visiting ladies that his wife is struggling to accept his ADHD diagnosis while telling us in voiceover that he’s been hiding his medication in his office and taking it in secret because she doesn’t approve. His quest to understand Makoto is also one to understand himself while trying to capture the way he sees the world. As Makoto says, however, Yoshifumi’s wife can never fully understand because she does not experience things the way they do. Nevertheless, the two men though a generation apart generate a genuine friendship, going to theme parks, baseball games, summer festivals, and eventually karaoke as they bond over their shared sense of difference. Lending a whimsical touch with frequent transitions into surrealist animation, Tsubota’s warm and empathetic approach explores not only his cousin’s usual life but also the problems of ageing and of disability in contemporary society along with a persistent stigma towards the acknowledgement of development disorders but finds solace in community support as friends and relatives rally round to help Makoto live his life to the fullest for as long as he can. 

What Can You Do About It? is available to stream in the US until July 30 as part of this year’s Japan Cuts.

Original trailer (English subtitles)

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