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)

Remain In Twilight (くれなずめ, Daigo Matsui, 2021) [Fantasia 2021]

“So what? We just live on.” remarks a bereaved young man learning to let go of his grief in Daigo Matsui’s melancholy ensemble drama Remain in Twilight (くれなずめ, Kurenazume). Matsui sets the scene at a wedding which is also in some ways a funeral during which the ghost at the feast will eventually be laid to rest but his study in loss is also a reflection of its eternal arrest as a group of high school friends learn to accept a sense of absence where their friend used to stand while processing the various ways their lives have and will continue to diverge where as his obviously will not. 

As the film opens a group of six men is surveying a wedding hall where they intend to recreate a dance they first performed at a high school culture festival. The wedding co-ordinator comes out to confirm that everything is in order and seating has been arranged for the five of them only to be reminded that actually they are six. Factory worker Nej (Rikki Metsugi) wants to hang out longer, but most of the other guys have other commitments from work to family but at a rambunctious karaoke session the next day during which they regress to their high school selves it becomes clear that one of their number, Yoshio (Ryo Narita), passed away five years previously but is quite literally there in spirit. 

In addition to Yoshio’s absence, it’s clear that the group has become distant since their high school days the wedding reunion highlighting the class differences between them with some going on to regular salaryman jobs, others working in fringe theatre, and Nej at the factory the uniform of which he is ubiquitously wearing at every occasion other than the wedding during which the guys’ black suits are identical to those they wore for the funeral save the substitution of a jauntier bow tie. The previously nicknamed “Sauce” is now Mr. Sogawa (Kenta Hamano) and a married father of one. They aren’t 17 anymore. 

Nevertheless, the guys can’t let go of the memory of Yoshio who remains among them as if he were still alive. Triggered by a seemingly trivial act such as eating a biscuit or hearing a particular turn of phrase each of the men is called back into the past towards a private memory of Yoshio some directly related to the performance at the cultural festival which seems to have marked their lives and others from later. They collectively meditate on the last time they saw each other, reliving the event, trying to prevent Yoshio from leaving but of course failing. Actor Akashi (Ryuya Wakaba) regrets not picking up his phone, little knowing it would be the last time he would see his friend because you can’t get away from the fact every time might be the last you just can’t know. 

“You’re only dead when it’s convenient” Yoshio’s high school crush Mikie (Atsuko Maeda) barks, seemingly unperturbed to see him in the flesh but also angry and resentful asking him to finally cancel his social media accounts so she won’t keep getting birthday reminders or see something about him popup on her feed, remember, and be sad. But softening she shows him a picture of her daughter, signalling that she’s moved on while he obviously cannot though he wishes her only happiness glad perhaps to have shared something he lacked the courage to confess while alive. 

So corporeal does Yoshio seem to be that he even receives a goodie bag from the wedding, again signalling his absence as the guys find themselves literally carrying extra baggage which they eventually decide to try burying leading to a rather surreal incident which confronts them directly with Yoshio’s liminal status and survival in their hearts. Travelling to the other side they begin to learn to let him go, poignantly once again considering calling a taxi though this time for five. Adapting stage play, Matsui’s sweeping handheld camera shifts effortlessly from one time period to another and finally into another realm with a giddy ethereality as the men, now approaching middle-age, meditate on the sense of loss in grieving teenage friendship along with its unlived future. It’s less the ghost than those who are left behind who must finally learn to “move on”, rewriting the past as they see fit in order to walk into a freer future. 


Remain In Twilight streams in Canada until Aug. 25 as part of this year’s Fantasia International Film Festival.

International trailer (English subtitles)

The Name (名前, Akihiro Toda, 2018)

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Names are a complicated business. Most people do not choose them for themselves, yet they come to define an identity or at least provide a substantial peg on which to hang one. If you give someone a fake name you are by definition shielding your essential self from view, refusing connection either in fear of discovery or intention to harm. The protagonist of Akihiro Toda’s The Name (名前, Namae) adopts several different titles as a part of his increasingly disordered everyday life in which he takes a hammer to his original identity in an ongoing act of guilt-ridden self harm. Meanwhile, his teenage would-be saviour, engages in a little role play of her own hoping to discover an essential truth about herself only to be disappointed, in one sense, and then perhaps find something better.

Masao Nakamura (Kanji Tsuda), if that is his real name, is not just leading a double life but is currently engaged in a number of iffy scams each compartmentalised under a different title and in which he plays an entirely different version of himself. Once a successful businessman, personal tragedy, marital breakdown, and bankruptcy have left him a floundering, cynical mess living in a rundown rural hovel with a pernickety neighbour and a decidedly lax approach to housekeeping. Masao’s main “job” appears to be working in a recycling plant where he’s managed to wangle a preferential contract by telling the higher-ups that his (non-existent) wife is seriously ill in hospital. Just as Masao’s scheme is about to be discovered, a mysterious teenage girl suddenly appears out of nowhere and plays along with Masao’s sob story, claiming to be his daughter come to remind him that he needs to leave earlier today because mum has been moved to a different hospital (which is why his boss’ contact had never heard of her).

Emiko Hayama (Ren Komai), as we later find out, is a more authentic soul but has decided on a brief flirtation with duplicity in observing the strange and cynical life of the morally bankrupt Masao. Facing similar issues but coming from the opposite direction, the pair meet in the middle – regretful middle-age and anxious youth each doing battle with themselves to define their own identities. Like Masao, Emiko is also living in less than ideal circumstances with her bar hostess single-mother, forced into adulthood ahead of schedule through the need to take care of herself, purchasing groceries, cooking, and keeping the place tidy. Thus her approach to Masao has, ironically enough, a slightly maternal component as she tries to get him back on his feet again – cleaning the place up and giving him something more productive to do than wasting his idle moments in bars and other unsavoury environments.

Masao’s current problems are perhaps more down to a feeling of failure rather than the failure itself. Once successful, happily married and excited about the future, he felt it all crash down around his ears through no real fault of his own. Nevertheless he blamed himself – his intensive work ethic placed a strain on his relationship with his wife and his all encompassing need for success blinded him to what it was that really mattered. By the time he realised it was already too late, and so it’s no surprise that he longs to escape himself through a series of cardboard cutout personalities, enacting a bizarre kind of wish fulfilment coupled with masochistic desire for atonement.

Now cynical and morally apathetic, Masao lets Emiko in on a secret about the grown-up world – it’s all lies. You have to put on disguise or two to get by; the world will not accept you for who you really are. Teenage girls might know this better than most, though Emiko is a slow learner. She might tell Masao that pretending to be other people is fun, but the one role she hasn’t yet conquered is that of Emiko Hayama – something which particularly irritates the demanding director of the theatre club she’s been cajoled into joining. Like Masao, Emiko’s life begins to fall apart through no fault of her own as she finds herself swallowed up by a typically teenage piece of friendship drama when her best friend’s boyfriend dumps her in order to pursue Emiko. Branded a scheming harlot and ejected from her group of friends, berated by the director of the theatre troupe, and having no-one to turn to at home, Emiko finds herself increasingly dependent on the surrogate father figure of Masao who is happy enough to play along with the ruse so long as it is just that.

Through their strange paternal bond, Emiko and Masao each reach a point of self identification, figuring out who it is they really are whilst facing the various things they had been afraid to face alone. Lamenting missed opportunities while celebrating second chances, The Name makes the case for authenticity as a path to happiness in a world which often demands its opposite. Melancholy but gently optimistic, Akihiro Toda’s peaceful drama is a heartwarming tale of the power of unexpected connection and the importance of accepting oneself in order to move into a more positive future.


Screened at the 20th Udine Far East Film Festival.