Masked Ward (仮面病棟, Hisashi Kimura, 2020)

“This hospital is…abnormal” according to locum doctor Hayami (Kentaro Sakaguchi) as he begins to discover dark goings on while trapped in a former psychiatric home after being taken hostage by a man in a clown mask. Based on the medical mystery novel by Mikito Chinen, Masked Ward (仮面病棟, Kamen Byoto) is partly a meditation on guilt and grief and partly an attack on backroom eugenics in an often judgemental and potentially corrupt society, if wrapped up in a wilfully silly B-movie crime thriller. 

Still on a temporary sabbatical following a bereavement, Dr. Hayami is recruited by an old friend, Kosakai (Ryohei Ohtani), to cover a night shift at a long term care hospital mostly catering to patients living with dementia. It has to be said the hospital itself has an instantly creepy aura, the police who later arrive describing it as looking like a prison which is apt because no one ever thought to remove the bars from the interior intended to keep “dangerous” patients from escaping. Even so, Hayami is repeatedly assured that nothing ever happens here and most likely he won’t need to come out of his room. Unfortunately that proves to be bad advice because not long after he settles in, a man in a clown mask turns up with a young woman he apparently himself shot but now wants patched up thereafter taking everyone present hostage while hiding out from police who have instituted a manhunt after he robbed a convenience store at gunpoint. 

You’d have to admit it looks a bit suspicious that all of this happened the very night that Hayami is in charge, especially as it’s suggested he may bear a grudge towards head doctor Tadokoro (Masanobu Takashima) as he was the one who refused to admit Hayami’s late girlfriend Yoko (Izumi Fujimoto) who was killed in a car accident in which Hayami was driving. Then again, as Hayami says, what would be the point in that? Suffering frequent flashbacks he subconsciously links the young woman, Hitomi (Mei Nagano), with Yoko determined in a sense to save her instead while trying to figure out what exactly is going on in this very weird medical institution and what the clown is trying to achieve with his random siege. 

The creepiness of the hospital is already well established with its former psychiatric institution vibes, something only enhanced on the discovery of an apparently disused operating theatre which is no grimy basement filled with rusty equipment but appears to have been refurbished recently and is sparklingly clean. It doesn’t really take a genius to figure out what’s been going on in there or why evil head doctor Tadokoro doesn’t want to call the police, but it does call into question not just his own ethics but those of the wider medical profession as he advances a series of eugenicist justifications for his decisions insisting that some lives are not worth saving while those of the elite who “can’t bear to wait” obviously are. Many of those in their beds have no names, taking those only of the area in which they were found supposedly with no identification, and are receiving only basic care otherwise forgotten by an indifferent society while hypocritical politicians offer platitudes about equality, superficially insisting that every citizen should have the right to live, to be protected, and to have a future.  

Even so Kimura can’t quite decide how seriously he wants to treat the darkness at the film’s centre, embracing the outlandishness of the material through a series of B-movie cliches from eerie handheld photography in the creepiness of the of the empty hospital corridors to literal lightning effects and foreshadowing so heavy it almost feels ironic. Yet the tone is at the same time earnest and slightly naive, the police apparently minded to cover the whole thing up due to pressure from above while Hayami is otherwise free to blow the whistle by getting the media involved with a press conference beamed directly onto a big inner-city screen in the middle of a presidential campaign speech all of which seems faintly unlikely given how far they were prepared to go keep the conspiracy secret while one wonders if he’d really be able to get so much attention so quickly even having recovered the secret documents proving his claims are true. In any case, his speech is only really intended for an audience of one as he says pretty much the same thing as the duplicitous politician only he really means it while urging those who’ve been irreparably harmed to give up their hate and try to move on sharing feelings and hopes rather than anger and resentment which is a nice message but perhaps also not especially helpful in holding those who’ve misused their power to account. 


Masked Ward streams until 27th February in several territories as part of Japanese Film Festival Online 2022.

Original trailer (English sutbtitles)

What’s For Dinner, Mom? (ママ、ごはんまだ?, Mitsuhito Shiraha, 2016)

What's for Dinner Mom posterJapanese cinema has a preoccupation with mothers and the nature of motherhood, but the mothers of the typical “hahamono” tend to be either saintly, self sacrificing figures whose selfless love often goes unrecognised, or problematic matriarchs whose fierce love and desire to protect their children has caused them to transgress and perhaps lose their children’s love. The mother at the centre of What’s For Dinner, Mom? (ママ、ごはんまだ?, Mama, Gohan Mada?) falls into a more realistic category – loving, self sacrificing, imperfect and perhaps sometimes misunderstood but always doing the best for her two daughters even in difficult circumstances. Where What’s For Dinner, Mom? differs from the accepted pattern is in its use of the domestic world to ask questions about culture and identity, and about all the various ways one never quite knows one’s family.

Tae (Haruka Kinami) and Yo (Izumi Fujimoto), sisters and now middle-aged women, are preparing to clear their family home 20 years after the death of their mother (Michiko Kawai). What’s taken them so long to make the decision is never revealed but both are as happy as possible about the idea and it seems Tae and her husband plan to knock the house down and build their own on the same plot – not quite so radical a thing as it might sound, Japan has no real housing market and “modern” houses are often knocked down and rebuilt every 20 to 30 years. Whilst packing things away, Tae finds a small box full of her mother’s keepsakes – chiefly letters and photographs along with a handwritten recipe book she began keeping in 1972.

Though Tae has lived in Japan for all her adult life, she was born in Taiwan and is half Taiwanese. Tae’s father passed away from lung cancer when she was small, but was a depressed, sometimes difficult man with ambivalent feelings towards his home nation. His own family had come from the mainland, but he’d lived in Taiwan under Japanese rule and attended university in Japan. He felt himself to be Japanese and was constantly upset and angry about the turbulent political situation of the post-war nation, facing its own series of identity crises and a protracted period of oppressive martial law.

Nevertheless, after their unpredictable whirlwind romance, Tae’s mother Kazue moved to Taiwan to live with her husband’s family and became determined to adapt to the local culture – chiefly through food. After her husband died in Japan, Kazue kept Taiwan alive for her daughters through continuing to cook the dishes she’d learned from her friends and family in Taiwan (even though her intensely “Japanese” husband only ever wanted to eat yudofu). Though Tae at one point urged to her mother to stop cooking Taiwanese and give her stereotypically cute high school bento, she quickly realised her mistake and Kazue’s unusual Taiwanese cooking became a local hit (even boosting the availability of the previously unobtainable pig’s trotters).

Despite her love of the food, Tae has all but forgotten her Taiwanese roots since her mother’s death and doesn’t know how to cook any of the dishes herself. Tae’s mild identity crisis comes to the fore in the second half of the film, though it’s an oddly under developed plot strand given the centrality of the cuisine. When she eventually makes the decision to visit her father’s remaining family, Tae seems to understand Taiwanese Mandarin but usually replies in Japanese (her uncle, accompanying her, is fluent). Like Kazue’s diary, Tae’s reminiscences are accompanied by on screen intertitles written in Chinese characters drawn childishly (even the characters which are identical to those used in Japanese are somewhat awkwardly rendered), which points to a kind of duality but is never really resolved even if Tae is able to explain a strange childhood memory and bring a piece of her past home with her.

Through her food odyssey and return to source, Tae is able to appreciate her mother’s love and sacrifice from an adult perspective, no longer left with teenage resentment and unfair anger over her early death but reclaiming her happy memories and appreciating the hardship her mother must have faced as a single mother in pre-bubble Japan. Despite its warm and fuzzy tone, What’s For Dinner, Mom? occasionally seems as if it wants to do something bigger by briefly introducing larger themes – Tae’s father’s depression, illness, the difficult political situation of post-war Taiwan, and the complex interplay between the two nations, but is content to settle back into a comforting “hahamono” tale of selfless motherhood finally appreciated only when it’s too late. Nevertheless it does what it set out to do in telling the story of a warm and loving family anchored by a kind yet determined woman and tables full of wholesome home cooking offered with an open, internationalist, heart.


Original trailer (English subtitles)