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)

After the Sunset (夕陽のあと, Michio Koshikawa, 2019)

Two women find themselves caught up in an impossible situation in Michio Koshikawa’s sensitive maternal drama After the Sunset (夕陽のあと, Yuhi No Ato). Though both want the best for the child, they have to acknowledge that someone is going to end up desperately hurt while perhaps no one is at fault other than the insensitive and austere society which saw fit to punish a young woman already in the depths of despair rather than come to her aid. 

7-year-old Towa (Towa Matsubara) lives in a cheerful island village with his mother Satsuki (Maho Yamada), fisherman father Yuichi (Masaru Nagai), and compassionate grandma Mie (Midori Kiuchi). What he doesn’t know is that Satsuki and Yuichi are not his birth parents. Unable to have children of their own they decided to pursue adoption after years of unsuccessful fertility treatments and now that they have everything else sorted are hoping to finalise Towa’s legal status as a member of their family. What they don’t know is that Towa’s birth mother, Akane (Shihori Kanjiya), has been living on the island for the past year to be close to her son but is conflicted and at something of a loss as to what to do. Matters come to a head when they need the birth mother’s signature on the adoption forms to confirm her renunciation of parental rights and Akane’s true identity is exposed. 

The first and most obvious problem is that both women believe themselves to be the rightful mother. Satsuki has been raising Towa since he was a baby and her feelings for him are no different than if she had given birth to him herself. Akane meanwhile gave birth to Towa in difficult circumstances and was then separated from him. She has spent the past four years searching and wants nothing more than to be reunited with her son. Though she can see that he is very happy with with Satsuki and Yuichi and is grateful that he has found such a loving family in such a beautiful place, she cannot bear the thought of losing Towa while Satsuki cannot help but fear that this other woman who was able to do what she was not in giving birth has come to take her child away. 

It is of course an impossible situation with no good or right answers. Satsuki begins by resenting Akane, discovering that Towa was abandoned as an infant in an internet cafe and regarding her as having lost the right to call herself his mother but on investigating more begins to understand the kind of despair she must have been in to have taken such a drastic step. A victim of domestic violence left all alone with an infant child and no means of support, she considered suicide but rather than help her the authorities criminalised her actions and took her child away, dangling the false hope of a reunion in return for “rehabilitation” while Satsuki and Yuichi gave him a happy family home she knew nothing about. Towa has lived all his life on the island, he thinks Satsuki and Yuichi are his mother and father, how could you explain to him that he has to leave his second mother to return to the first that he never really knew?

Where one might expect there to be fear and anger, the two women eventually come to an understanding of one another as mothers who each want the best for the child even if that means they may end up hurt. As grandma puts it, the island is a welcoming place. It accepts all those who come, and does not pursue those who choose to leave but is always willing receive them when they return. Towa points out that that it takes a village, to him everyone on the island, including Akane, is his mother because they all raised him together though his father holds that the best mother of all is the sea. There is perhaps room for more than one if only in an ideological sense, no true mothers and no false only people who love their children and struggle against themselves to do what they know in their hearts is best. A gentle exploration of everyday life on a tranquil island, Michio Koshikawa’s sensitive drama finds people at their best in the extremities of emotional difficulty, finding their way through mutual compassion and understanding in an acknowledgement that there is no right answer only an acceptable best that leaves the door open for a future reconciliation.


After The Sunset is available to stream in Germany until June 14 as part of this year’s online Nippon Connection Film Festival.

Original trailer (No subtitles)