When disaster strikes false cheerfulness takes hold as those left behind attempt to push each other forward and away from the wreckage of their old lives, but refusing to deal with the reality causes more problems than it solves. This is doubly true when it comes to children who find themselves all alone when robbed of everything they’ve known by forces beyond their control. First time feature director Masakazu Sugita, himself a survivor of the 1995 Hanshin Earthquake which struck when he was just 14 years old, was led to the realisation of a long gestating project after the devastating earthquake and tsunami which struck Japan in March 2011 leaving many facing loss and bereavement. Though the children at the centre of Joy of Man’s Desiring (人の望みの喜びよ, Hito no Nozomi no Yorokobi yo) are lucky enough to have surviving relatives prepared to take them in and raise them with love and care, their lives are far from easy as they attempt to come to terms with the aftershocks of disaster.
12 year old Haruna (Ayane Ohmori) tugs at roof tiles now lying on the floor with no house underneath them. Her nightdress is covered in blood stains and dust and she has deep cuts on her heels, hands, and face. Finally someone drags her away from her broken home and towards a makeshift settlement with a oil drum fire where a relative later finds her. Though she and her brother Shota (five, still in the hospital) survive, both her parents have been killed. The relatives who’ve been looking after her don’t want to make it a long term arrangement and suggest sending the siblings to an orphanage all with Haruna lying awake listening in the next room. Her other aunt won’t hear of it and so Haruna and Shota (Riku Ohishi) are packed off to live in a quiet coastal town with their mother’s sister (Naoko Yoshimoto) and her family which includes their slightly older and very sulky cousin Katsutoshi (Shumpei Oba) as well as their uncle (Koichiro Nishi) and his father who is all too happy to have another two grandchildren to spoil.
The quiet coastal town with its natural beauty, wide open roads and winding streets dotted with pleasant looking houses should be the ideal place for the children to settle down in peace and they are indeed lucky in their aunt’s willingness to take them in as full members of the family (especially given the initial ugliness which exposed the relative lack of compassion from others) but moving to a completely new town to live with near strangers is a difficult prospect at the best of times, especially for young children, even if they aren’t also trying to process the loss of their parents. Whether because they didn’t have the heart, or they thought he wouldn’t understand, or perhaps just because they were waiting for his physical health to fully recover, no one has explained to little Shota that his parents will not be coming back. He can’t understand why they haven’t come to fetch him and has taken to hanging around the ferry terminal all day watching the figures coming off the boat in case they should eventually arrive.
Shota is lively and boisterous, adapting much more quickly to his new life than his older sister who remains quiet and withdrawn, sitting alone at school and staying in her room at home. Everyone is so caught up in the need to be cheerful and get on with life that no one has stopped think about the various effects the new living situation is having on all involved. The community is small and so new kids moving in is a rare event, making Haruna a mild novelty at her new school whether she likes it or not. People keep telling her to “hang in there” and they mean well, but all they really do is remind her that she’s been bereaved, that she’s “different” from the other children, and that she doesn’t quite belong in their world.
Meanwhile, they also discourage her from talking to them about her feelings of grief and guilt, but talking’s not something generally done by people making a great effort to get on with things as demonstrated by a final frustrated outburst by Haruna’s aunt who has been trying to care for the children while her own son turns his resentment back on her, her husband leaves everything to his wife, and Haruna offers some unkind words at just the wrong time. Katsutoshi is perhaps justified in his petulant resentment of his new siblings, fearing (as one unkind school friend indelicately puts it) that his parents don’t want him anymore, and that he’s unwittingly become associated with the mild whiff of intrigue surrounding the newcomers, but it’s his inability to voice any of his concerns in a more normal way that provokes the eventual family crisis which sees Shota and Haruna finally set out on a course of reconciliation with their past.
Haruna thinks she has to be strong for Shota, keeping the secret of their parents death to avoid causing him pain but also leaving her with no one to talk about them with. Shota, however, is equally devoted to his sister, gently patting her futon while she’s ill and arriving with a pretty daisy he’s picked to cheer her up in the film’s poignant final scenes. Sugita keeps things natural but enlivens the drama with interesting composition and a shift into the expressionist for the traumatic scenes of destruction which mark the film’s opening. A repeated motif of the sun shining through water serves an apt metaphor of the grief process as a kind of drowning, but like the daisy at the film’s closing it also offers hope in the possibility of life after disaster but only once the waters have receded.
Screened as part of the Japan Foundation Touring Film Programme 2018.
Screening again at:
- Queen’s Film Theatre – 11 February 2018
- Firstsite – 18 February 2018
- Depot – 21 February 2018
- Filmhouse – 4 March 2018
- Broadway – 19 March 2018
Original trailer (English subtitles)