The unresolved past conspires against present happiness in the supernaturally-tinged second feature from Chihiro Ito, Side By Side (サイド バイ サイド 隣にいる人, Side by Side: Tonari ni Iru Hito). Ito began her career as a screenwriter often working with director Isao Yukisada penning the screenplay for his 2004 junai mega hit Crying Out Love in the Center of the World before making directorial debut just last year with In Her Room, produced by Yukisada and selected for the Tokyo International Film Festival. Like many of the films Ito scripted, Side by Side bears an unusual sensitivity and gentleness of spirit in the way it sees the world which may in its way be filled with pain and longing but also warmth and light even if some may ultimately feel that they can never become a part of it. 

Miyama (Kentaro Sakaguchi) is indeed a haunted man in more ways that one, though the most obvious is that he’s continually followed around by a blond man dressed in black (Kodai Asaka) who says nothing but just stares blankly much like Miyama himself. Working as a physiotherapist, Miyama travels the country and often discovers that the physical pain his patients experience is linked to an emotional trauma as manifested in the various ghosts he sees around them which don’t seem to speak to him. Having left the city of Tokyo where he was raised, he wandered around before eventually finding a home with the welcoming nurse Shiori (Mikako Ichikawa) and her young daughter Mimi (Ameri Isomura) in a tranquil rural village in picturesque Nagano. Yet there are ways in which Miyama doesn’t seem to fit inside the familial environment, almost like a ghost himself somehow there and also not. 

The ghosts are in their way a visual representation of the unresolved past that endangers the new family Miyama has begun to build with Shiori and Mimi but fears he can never really be a part of. Shiori recalls seeing a light fitting in a film that she wants to hang over their dinner table to bathe it in the warm light of family, but is unable to find it even with Miyama’s help. It’s she that makes the rather unusual decision to invite a another ghost of Miyama’s past into their home in the gothic vision that is Riko (Asuka Saito), a woman Miyama “abandoned” who has since experienced some kind of breakdown and is then “abandoned” once again by another man who may or may not be the father of the child she is carrying. The unconditional love and support of Shiori and her daughter begin to bring Riko back to life, no longer dressing all in black and eating only white-coloured foods as colour and warmth are slowly returned to her. 

Even so, there are times it becomes difficult to tell the living from the “dead” when even Miyama seems like a ghost dressed all in white haunting his own life with his eerie stillness and not quite vacant eyes but those which express, as someone later puts it, a deep regret in his past. Like everyone else he struggles to emerge from past trauma in parental abandonment and physical abuse while acknowledging that his father suffered as a child and passed that suffering on to him because he did not know how to be a father. Miyama doesn’t know how to be a father either which is perhaps why he fears the depths of his new relationships and his role as a paternal figure while filled with shame and regret for those he failed in the past. 

But then there are others so undeniably alive such as Shiori and her daughter, often dressed in a vibrant yellow and basking in the warm sunshine which streams through the large windows of Shiori’s beautifully designed home. The family take solace in the beauty and comfort of the natural world, protected by its rhythms and the serenity it often offers them. Miyama may feel that he can never recover from his past and has no right to be drawn to this one solitary source of light, as Shiori describes it, like the bugs he is forever trying to keep out of the house but in the end gives them something else in the unconventional family that arises founded on human compassion and unconditional love that asks few questions and simply accepts those who are willing to accept it.

Side by Side had its World Premiere as part of this year’s Osaka Asian Film Festival.

Original trailer (no subtitles)

Images: (C) 2023 “Side by Side” Film Partners

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