Somewhere near the beginning of Daishi Matsunaga’s debut feature, Pieta in the Toilet (トイレのピエタ, Toire no Pieta), the high rise window washing hero is attempting to school a nervous newbie by “reassuring” him that the worst thing that could happen up here is that you could die. This early attempt at black humour signals Hiroshi’s already aloof and standoffish nature but his fateful remark comes back to haunt him after he is diagnosed with an aggressive and debilitating condition of his own. Noticeably restrained in contrast with the often melodramatic approach of similarly themed mainstream pictures, Pieta in the Toilet is less a contemplation of death than of life, its purpose and its possibilities.
Having left his country home for Tokyo to become a painter, Hiroshi (Yojiro Noda) has become a bitter man, wilfully drowning in his own broken dreams. A chance encounter with an old flame, Satstuki (Saya Ichikawa), further deepens Hiroshi’s sense of inadequacy – she is about to open a solo exhibition in the very building which Hiroshi is currently engaged in washing the windows of. After having so sarcastically made fun of his new colleague’s fear of the rig, it’s Hiroshi who finds himself collapsing on the job and requiring medical treatment.
Seeing as the hospital have requested he bring a family member along with him for the results of the examination, it’s probably not good news. Not wanting to involve his parents, Hiroshi persuades Satsuki to masquerade as his younger sister only to restart an old argument in the waiting room prompting his former love to remember why they aren’t together anymore and hightail it out of there. Spotting a high school girl arguing with a salaryman she says has torn her uniform, Hiroshi decides to offer the job to her. Mai (Hana Sugisaki) plays her part to perfection but the news is even worse than he’d feared – aggressive stomach cancer requiring immediate hospitalisation and sustained chemotherapy if he is to have any chance at all of surviving more than a couple of months at most.
Prior to his illness, Hiroshi is a difficult man, permanently grumpy and irritated as if carrying a great sense of injustice. Despite several different voices reminding him that he had talent, Hiroshi has given up drawing in the belief that his artistic career was always doomed to failure. Intent on punishing himself for just not being good enough to succeed, Hiroshi’s decision to make window washing his career signals his lack of personal ambition, content to simply keep existing while a silent rage bubbles under the surface.
After the original failed reconnection with Satsuki who, we later discover, has moved in another direction using her society connections to advance her career in a way of which Hiroshi does not approve, Hiroshi’s illness brings him into contact with a number of people who each do their bit to reopen his heart. The most important of these is the feisty high school girl, Mai, who refuses to simply disappear from Hiroshi’s life after the awkward bonding experience of being present at the cancer diagnosis of a total stranger. As angry and defeated as Hiroshi, Mai’s difficult homelife has brought her untold suffering but unlike the brooding painter, hers in an externalised rage which sends her reeling into the world, looking for reaction and recognition rather than the introspective craving for disappointment and indifference which marks Hiroshi’s approach to his internalised sense of inadequacy.
Hiroshi’s hospital stay produces twin motivators from both ends of the spectrum in the form of an older man in the next bed, Yokota (Lily Franky), who enjoys taking photographs (especially of pretty girls), and a terminally ill little boy who remains cheerful, polite and friendly despite Hiroshi’s rather rude attempt to shake him off. It’s on a visit to the hospital chapel with the boy, Takuto (Riku Sawada), and his mother (Rie Miyazawa) that Hiroshi first comes across the statue of the pieta which inspires his ultimate, life affirming act which sees him turn the smallest room of the house into a new Sistine Chapel with a large scale installation recasting Mai as Mary, arms outstretched ready to receive her sorrowful burden.
Hiroshi’s life had been mere existence but reaching an acceptance of its end forces him into a process of more positive self reflection and a desire to leave something more permanent behind. Inspired by a few words found on the final page of the diary kept by the godfather of manga, Osamu Tezuka, himself battling stomach cancer at the time, Pieta in the Toilet puts art at the core of life as Hiroshi picks up his paint brush, Yokota his camera (albeit with slightly less than artful intentions), and Takuto his painstakingly collected colour-in heroes. Necessarily melancholy yet somehow life affirming Pieta in the Toilet offers a nuanced though no less powerful contemplation of life, death and art in which each gives meaning to the other, ensuring the richness of a life fully lived.
Screened as part of the Japan Foundation Touring Film Programme 2017.
Original trailer (English subtitles)