Family of Strangers (閉鎖病棟 それぞれの朝, Hideyuki Hirayama, 2019)

“Things happen to everyone” the hero of Hideyuki Hirayama’s Family of Strangers (閉鎖病棟 それぞれの朝, Heisa Byoutou: Sorezore no Asa, AKA Closed Ward) explains, not in an accusatory sense or attempt to limit someone else’s trauma response but in a gentle spirit of empathy, a reminder that everyone has their own load to carry and theirs are heavier than most. Empathy is indeed a minor theme of Hirayama’s drama as his wounded protagonists eventually find the strength to allow themselves to live again in the unconditional solidarity of their newly found family in defiance of the internalised shame and external stigma that plagues them in an admittedly conformist society. 

Hirayama opens with a flashback, shot in muted colour, as a man, Hide (Tsurube Shofukutei), is marched slowly towards the execution chamber where he is eventually hanged but, inconveniently for the prison authorities, does not die. Lacking a clear precedent for such an unusual event, they are at a loss as to how to proceed while Hide does not exactly seem overjoyed in his improbable survival. As hanging him again would be cruel and simply letting him off as if reborn to live a new life they feel not in the interests of justice, they opt for a fudge, palming the now wheelchair-using Hide off on the hospitals system by placing him in the secure ward of a psychiatric institution. 

A quiet man keeping himself to himself, Hide patiently crafts ceramics and meditates on his crime keeping others at arm’s length as if believing himself unworthy of human society. He may have been sentenced to death for something truly unforgivable, but he is not mentally ill and does not really belong in the hospital whereas many of the other patients are self-committals who are technically free to leave at a time of their own choosing. Chuya (Go Ayano), a young man with schizophrenia, has more or less learned to live with his condition and exercises a greater degree of personal freedom, often venturing into town and bringing back various items he cynically sells to others on the ward. He could leave if he wanted to, but stays partly out of a sense of internalised shame and partly in fear of the outside world. Yuki (Nana Komatsu), meanwhile, an 18-year-old woman committed by her mother (Reiko Kataoka) after becoming worryingly withdrawn, has little personal agency, first placed on the ward and then removed from it neither with her full consent. 

Though we can see that the hospital is a largely positive, supportive place where the patients are well cared for we do not see a great deal of treatment practices and it is in someways surprising that Yuki is allowed to leave in the company of a man who is quite clearly violent and abusive even if we can also infer that she herself has remained largely silent as regards the nature of her trauma. Her silence is perhaps her means of both defence and resistance with her first words offered to Hide largely because he does not ask her for them, merely sitting by giving her the space to choose to speak or not to. Despite his caution that the longer one stays on the ward the more one begins to think of oneself as a patient, she begins to think of the hospital of her safe place and the other patients as her surrogate family, touched by an old woman’s radiant happiness as she helps her back to her room mistaking her for her granddaughter. 

Yet as much as the hospital works for her, it does not necessarily work for others as in the case of Shigemune (Kiyohiko Shibukawa) whose antisocial and violent tendencies often endanger other patients not least because of lax supervision and questionable decisions made by members of staff. A direct parallel is perhaps being drawn between the jail and the ward, Chuya frightened he may never leave while Hide believes he does not deserve to and Yuki longs to stay only to have her new safe place ruined by another predatory man of violence. Yet there is also a sense that society views the hospital as a place to dump those it feels to be problematic, Hide hidden away in embarrassment, Chuya rejected by his family, and Yuki betrayed by a mother who has come to see her as a rival. Shopkeepers look at them askance, not altogether happy that “even crazy people have rights these days” while the trio struggle to accept themselves as having a right to a happier future even as they begin to bond in a newfound sense of family. While the closing scenes may engage in an uncomfortable ableism, there is an undoubtable sense of warmth and compassion in Hirayama’s egalitarian sense of solidarity as his wounded protagonists find strength in faith reflected in others to shake off their sense of internalised shame and claim their right to life in an often hostile society. 


Family of Strangers streams in Germany 1st to 6th June as part of this year’s Nippon Connection.

Original trailer (English subtitles)

Parallel World Love Story (パラレルワールド・ラブストーリー, Yoshitaka Mori, 2019)

Have you ever had the feeling that you’re going out of your mind? Something just doesn’t feel right, your sense of perception and memory of the past don’t match the “reality” you’re currently experiencing but you have no way of knowing what’s at fault, you or the world. The hero of Parallel World Love Story (パラレルワールド・ラブストーリー) finds himself in just this situation as he begins to experience two very different states of being, one in which he’s living happily with the love of his life, and another where she’s dating his childhood friend. Is he a love crazed fool, or is someone messing with his head?

Travelling the same train into college every day, Takashi (Yuta Tamamori) fell in deep silent love with a young woman whose train crossed his every Tuesday morning. On his very last Tuesday, he decided he’d switch trains and try to find her, but she did exactly the same thing and so they missed each other, leaving Takashi feeling as if his fated romance was matter for another universe. He is then shocked when an old friend from middle school, Tomohiko (Shota Sometani), introduces that same young woman, Mayuko (Riho Yoshioka), as his girlfriend some time later. A little resentful at this twist of fate, Takashi tries his best to keep his feelings hidden. Meanwhile we see him “wake up” in his own apartment where Mayuko, who lives with him, is lovingly making him breakfast. He has a vague recollection of Tomohiko turning up in his dream, but can’t seem to remember what it is he’s doing these days. In this “reality”, Tomohiko introduced Mayuko to Takashi, and has abruptly moved to LA without even saying a proper goodbye, apparently working on a top secret research operation which keeps him entirely out of contact. 

Both men are involved with the research of perception and memory. Talking to another friend before “meeting” Mayuko, Takashi points out that it’s your brain which constructs the current reality from your sense perception. He grasps her hand and her brain tells her she feels it, but she’d feel the same thing if he isolated and activated the relevant sectors of her brain which tell her her hand is being grasped. Tomohiko, meanwhile, has gone one step further. He’s discovered that it’s neural networks rather than the brain which store memories and that, by stimulating those neural receptors in a particular way, memory can be rewritten or fake memories introduced. He proves this by illegally experimenting on a friend, making him think he’s from Tokyo when he’s really from Hiroshima, and reconstructing the image of an old teacher so that she’s now a pretty young woman and not a portly old man. 

The gap between what you want to be true and the “reality” is shrinking. It turns out that it’s easy enough to trick yourself into thinking something is true when it isn’t when you really want it to be. According to Tomohiko, once your brain has decided to approve the “fake” reality, cognitive dissonance is overcome by everything else being forced to fit into your new conception of the world. Takashi, however, is struggling to integrate his two parallel lives, one bleeding inconveniently into the other leaving him wondering which one is the “reality” and which the “dream”. 

Takashi’s less palatable qualities, however, exist firmly in the recent past of reality A in which romantic jealousy appears to have driven him half out of his mind, causing him to semi-stalk the innocent Mayuko and consider betraying his childhood friend by stealing the woman he loves. Takashi’s sole justification for his behaviour is the unspoken romantic connection which brought them together on the train, a connection he is “certain” she remembers without being given any particular encouragement from her side. Reality B Takashi, who lives with Mayuko, similarly becomes obsessed with the idea that Mayuko in some way belongs to Tomohiko, awakening an unpleasant sense of misogyny in his desire to prove that Mayuko is his because he saw her first on the train. 

Meanwhile back in Reality A, he starts to suspect that Tomohiko is up to no good pursuing unethical research practices and working towards a sinister goal. It’s unfortunate that Tomohiko also has a prominent limp from a lame leg, playing into the unpleasant association of villainy and disability. Even Takashi, having turned dark, accuses Mayuko of dating him out of pity, while Tomohiko describes him as a “hero” for having rescued him from childhood bullies. Takashi starts to suspect him, not only of being a mad scientist, but perhaps actively hostile and plotting revenge against him for stealing Mayuko. In a particularly Higashino-esque touch, Tomohiko’s motives turn out to be kinder than they might at first seem even if they’re a little on the extreme side, leaving Takashi pushed to make a similarly extreme yet strangely counterproductive move by his infinitely shady boss who is also exploiting the increasingly conflicted Mayuko. Yet, aside from all the philosophical musings on the nature of reality, the interplay of desire and memory, and the ethics of manipulating the perception of others, this is in essence a love story between two people who gazed at each other from passing trains. If you find each other once, you can find each other twice, and, in love, reality might not be so important.


Original trailer (hit subtitle button for English subs)