In modern society we often criticise others, but not always ourselves, for a perceived lack of empathy but what would it be like to truly empathise with everyone, all of the time, with no control over our own feelings? The hero of Keiichi Higuchi’s psychological drama Kyoshin (共振) finds himself with just this problem after a traumatic incident leaves him with both intense PTSD and the unwelcome side effect of being forced to feel the pain of others as his own.
26-year-old Takehiko (Akihiro Yamamoto) thought of himself as perhaps a little over sensitive, feeling obvious discomfort sat opposite two salarymen arguing loudly in a crowded restaurant while also somewhat disconnected from his partner in a moment of supposed intimacy. It’s one evening on the beach, however, when everything goes into overdrive. Spotting two guys manhandling a screaming woman into a van he and his friend Gin (Keisuke Sohma) intervene but aren’t much of a match for two the young thugs and find themselves tied up and stunned in the back while the woman is forced to provide oral sex to the driver. Taking advantage of a momentary lapse from the other man who was busy interrogating Gin and Takehiko, the woman takes drastic action of her own in a bid to escape. Gin tries to help her, but seeing what’s befallen the driver Takehiko is plunged into fugue state able to do nothing other than scream in pain as if it were he that had suffered the catastrophic injury.
A year on, Takehiko is a broken shell of a man unable to venture outside owing to the intense assault of other people’s pain. Ignoring calls from Gin, he’s cared for by his older brother Yuya (Daichi Yamaguchi) who ferries him to various doctor’s appointments, jeopardising his own employment in the process. Sick of medical professionals unwilling to admit they don’t know how to help him and obsessed with the curse of 27, Takehiko decides he’ll take his own life if there’s no improvement in his condition by his next birthday but then discovers potential salvation in an experimental programme run by a lesbian couple in which he will receive treatment from a woman who once experienced something very similar to himself but claims to have learned to live with it.
The irony is that Takehiko’s condition is caused by extreme empathy in that he cannot avoid feeling other people’s physical pain as his own, yet he continues to treat those around him badly blind to the emotional toll caring for him is taking on them. His brother, feeling a parental responsibility as their parents passed away young, drops everything to help him but his boorish boss, ironically, has a fundamental lack of empathy. Annoyed that Yuya takes so much time off, he openly mocks him making the rather irrelevant point that Takehiko is 26 not six and therefore shouldn’t need so much care virtually accusing him of mollycoddling as if the problem were Yuya’s anxiety rather than his brother’s precarious mental health.
Yet the experimental programme Takehiko finds himself involved with raises its own collection of ethical questions as the psychiatrist pushes him into a series of erotic situations arguing that if he learns to empathise across the emotional spectrum to experience other people’s pleasure as well as their pain he’ll be able to turn it off much more easily or at least flatten it out. She implies that similar therapies are what has enabled her to live a relatively normal life, but fails to disclose that she is also carrying a similar trauma which the treatment ironically recalls while largely failing to deal with the obvious possibility of transference in the potentially inappropriate lack of boundaries between patient and doctor.
It might not be appropriate to ask how much empathy is too much empathy, but Takehiko’s path to recovery ironically enough lies only in secondary shock and a brush with death that allows him to reconnect with his friend Gin, suffering alone in their shared trauma, while empathising emotionally with his brother’s obvious care for him. It isn’t so much that Takehiko needs to disengage with those around him, but learn how to process effectively so that he can better help and understand rather solipsistically internalising external suffering. Shot with a sense of uneasy eeriness and a sci-fi twist in the manifestation of Takehiko’s descent into an oppressive empathy bubble, Higuchi’s provocative drama advocates for caring a little more about the pain of others but not so much that it stops you seeing where it hurts.
Kyoshin streamed as part of Yubari International Fantastic Film Festival 2021.
Original trailer (no subtitles)