The House Where the Mermaid Sleeps (人魚の眠る家, Yukihiko Tsutsumi, 2018)

In most countries, the legal and medical definitions of death centre on activity in the brain. In Japan, however, death is only said to have occurred once the heart stops beating. The bereaved parents at the centre of The House Where the Mermaid Sleeps (人魚の眠る家, Ningyo no Nemuru Ie), adapted from the novel by Keigo Higashino, are presented with the most terrible of choices. They must accept that their daughter, Mizuho, will not recover, but are asked to decide whether she is declared brain dead now so that her organs can be used for transplantation, or wait for her heart to stop beating in a few months’ time at most. As their daughter was only six years old, they’d never discussed anything like this with her but come to the conclusion that she’d want to help other children if she could. Only when they come to say goodbye, Mizuho grasps her mother’s hand giving her possibly false hope that the doctor’s assurances that she is brain dead and will never wake up are mistaken. 

The situation is further complicated by the fact that the Harimas were in the middle of a messy divorce when they got the news that Mizuho had been involved in an accident at a swimming pool. Kazumasa (Hidetoshi Nishijima), Mizuho’s father, is the CEO of a tech firm specialising in cutting edge medical technology mostly geared towards making the lives of people with disabilities easier. He does therefore have a special interest in his daughter’s condition and is willing to explore scientific solutions where most might simply accept the doctor’s first opinion. His wife, Kaoruko, meanwhile has a deep-seated faith that her daughter is still present if asleep and will one day wake up. 

It so happens that one of Kazuma’s researchers (Kentaro Sakaguchi) specialises in a new kind of technology which hopes to restore motor function through artificial nerve signals controlled by computers and electromagnetic pulses. He hatches on the idea of using the technology to improve his daughter’s quality of life by letting her “exercise” to maintain muscle strength, but despite the excellent results it achieves in terms of her health, it takes them to a dark place. Muscle training might be one thing, but having Mizuho make meaningful gestures is another. They don’t mean to, but they’re manipulating her body as if she were a puppet, even forcing her to smile without her consent. 

Kazumasa starts to wonder if he’s gone too far. Seeing his daughter’s face move with no emotion behind it only proves to him that she is no longer alive. Meanwhile, he comes across another parent raising money to send his daughter to America for a life saving heart transplant and begins to feel guilty that perhaps his decision was selfish. The father of the other girl sympathises with him and confides that they can’t bring themselves to pray for a donor because they know it’s the same as praying for another child’s death, but Kazumasa can’t help feeling he’s partly responsible because he made the choice to artificially prolong his daughter’s life but now realises that she is little more than a living a doll. 

This is something brought home to him by Kaoruko’s increasing desire to show their daughter off. Her decision to take her to their son Ikuo’s elementary school entrance ceremony instantly causes trouble with the other parents who feign politeness but are obviously uncomfortable while the children waste no time in ostracising Ikuo because of his “creepy” sister. Kazumasa privately wonders if Kaoruko’s devotion has turned dark, if she’s somehow begun to enjoy this new closeness with her daughter to the exclusion of all else and has lost the power of rational thought. He can’t know however that perhaps she’s coming to the same conclusion as him, but it finding it much harder to accept that they might have made a mistake and all their interventions are only causing Mizuho additional suffering.

What’s best for Mizuho, however, is something that sometimes gets forgotten in the ongoing debate about the moral choices of her parents and relatives. Kazumasa’s colleagues accuse of him of misappropriation in monopolising a key researcher, hinting again at the “selfishness” of his decision to expend so much energy on treating someone whom many believe to be without hope when there are many more in need. The researcher in turn accuses Kazumasa of “jealousy” believing that he has displaced him as an “artificial” father working closely with Kaoruko in caring for their daughter. The “life” in the balance is not so much Mizuho’s but that of the traditional family which is perhaps in a sense reborn in rediscovering the blinding love that they shared for each other which will of course never fade. What they learn is to love unselfishly, that love is sometimes letting go, but also that even in endings there is a kind of continuity in the shared gift of life and the goodness left behind even after the most unbearable of losses.


Screened as part of the Japan Foundation Touring Film Programme 2020.

Original trailer (English subtitles)

12 Suicidal Teens (十二人の死にたい子どもたち, Yukihiko Tsutsumi, 2019)

12 Suicidal Teens posterJapan has a relatively high suicide rate, but even so the number of people taking their own lives had been steadily decreasing, hitting a 22-year low in 2016. Conversely, youth suicide rates peaked, hitting a 30-year high. Inspired by Tow Ubukata’s novel, 12 Suicidal Teens (十二人の死にたい子どもたち, Juni-nin no Shinitai Kodomo-tachi), as the title implies, sees a dozen high school students forming a kind of club in which they will take the decision to live or die as a group, ironically undercutting the sense of powerlessness which has led them to the conclusion that they have no other choice other than death.

Ringleader Satoshi (Mahiro Takasugi) has recruited 11 likeminded souls and furnished them with complicated instructions involving a series of secret codes granting them access to a basement meeting room in an abandoned hospital. The 12 dutifully make their way into the building, but a surprise is waiting for them. When the first guest arrives, a young man is already lying in one of the 12 beds arranged around the edges of the room, apparently having jumped the gun, dead or dying after taking a large amount of sleeping pills. Everyone concludes he must be the event’s organiser, only for Satoshi to suddenly arrive and attempt to “open” the meeting at which they’re supposed to discuss the issues thoroughly so they can be sure they’re making the right decision. Because of the unexpected 13th guest, a decision is taken to postpone the discussion until after they figure out what’s going on.

Part of the reason for that is less curiosity than a kind of resentment. The teens are worried that their own deaths maybe misunderstood or misused if they’re discovered with this randomer in their midst. What if he’s the victim of a serial killer and everyone thinks they are too, never getting the message that each of them was desperate to send with their deaths? One young man who is dying to get back at a neglectful mother by denying her a life insurance pay out is worried it might backfire and she’d end up quids in if the police decide he’s a murder victim and not a suicide. He decides to live (for the moment at least) almost all out of spite.

Spite is, it seems, a powerful motivator in one sense or another. What most of our teens want isn’t really death but freedom, an end to pain or suffering. Suicide rates spike in September because bullied students can’t bear the thought of returning to school. Bullying is indeed the reason one of our teens wants to die, only the instigator was a teacher who led his class to victimise an innocent student solely for the crime of being an “annoying” person. Another teen, meanwhile, was bullied until he finally snapped, pushing his aggressor down a flight of stairs. Unable to live with the guilt, he too feels he can’t go on.

For the girls, the lack of control is all the more obvious. One young woman walks around with a surgical mask covering her face, not because she’s hideously burned but because she’s fantastically beautiful. One of Japan’s many celebrity idols, she’s on the cover of a thousand teen magazines but doesn’t recognise herself in the images that she sees and resents the way in which her existence is micromanaged by others. She wants to die as a means of seizing her own agency, to prove that her life and her individuality were valid and mattered as distinct from the fake persona created by her managers. Her fame endangers the mission of the group’s most emo member who declares that the mass suicide should be bomb detonated under an indifferent society, that she’s dying to reject her existence and rebelling against having been born.

Like some of the others, she’s a survivor of abusive parenting and resents having been given a “meaningless” life. A few of the other teens feel the same but for different reasons, they are suffering longterm or terminal health conditions and resent both their fates and being forced to live on without hope. They choose death now to prove they have a choice and are leaving on their own terms, not those of the universe.

Eventually the conclusion that they come to is that to live is also a choice. Working together to solve the mystery of the unexpected guest, they begin to understand a little of each other’s lives and their own, bonding in a shared sense of futility that slowly drifts into a rejection of the nihilism that had convinced them that their only choice was death. A strangely uplifting experience, 12 Suicidal Teens is a dark celebration of life that makes a virtue of endurance and finally finds meaning in commonality and the simple joy of empathic connection.


Original trailer (no subtitles)

Initiation Love (イニシエーション・ラブ, Yukihiko Tsutsumi, 2015)

initiation loveMost romantic comedies don’t come with warnings about twist endings and a plea not to give them way, but Initiation Love (イニシエーション・ラブ) is not your average romantic comedy. Set in the early bubble era, Yukihiko Tsutsumi’s double sided feature is itself a wry look at the problematic nature of nostalgia. Harking back to a perhaps more innocent era in which lack of political and economic turmoil left plenty of time for romantic confusion coupled with the corruption of the consumerist dream, Initiation Love pits innocent romance against cynical success but subtly suggests that grown up love is a kind of compromise in itself.

Side A: In the summer of 1987, Yuki Suzuki (Kanro Morita) – a geeky, overweight young man who is shy but has a kind heart, is unexpectedly invited to a college drinking party where he earns some major white knight points for interrupting the increasingly inappropriate grilling of new invitee Mayuko (Atsuko Maeda). Mayuko is pretty, sweet, and cute if in a slightly affected way. She is way out of Suzuki’s league, but later confesses that she’s looking for someone a bit different, like Suzuki, an awkward-type who won’t lie to her or play around. Bonding over a shared love of reading, the pair grow closer, Mayuko rechristens Suzuki “Takkun”, and he vows to spruce himself up to become “worthy” of her.

Side B: Takkun (Shota Matsuda), now slim and handsome, is given a surprise promotion to Tokyo. Rather than suggest marriage or that Mayuko come with him, he settles on long distance and promises to come back to Shizuoka at weekends while waiting to be approved for a transfer back home. In Tokyo, however, Takkun’s personality begins to shift. Seduced by city sophistication and the promises of an elite salaryman lifestyle, Takkun draws closer to upper-class career woman Miyako (Fumino Kimura) whose jaded straightforward confidence he regards as “grown up” in contrast to the innocent charms of Mayuko waiting patiently at home.

The overarching narrative is provided to us via a melancholy voice over and accompanied, in the manner of a classic mix-tape, by a song from the era which is deliberately on the nose in terms of its aptness – a song about giving up on summer just as the couple are stuck in a traffic jam on the way to the beach and about to have a gigantic row, or a song about lucky chances coming up on TV just as our hero is plucking up the courage to allow himself to be bamboozled into going on a date with the girl of his dreams. The carefully placed positioning of the songs reminds us that we are inside someone’s carefully curated memories. Just as Takkun’s vision of Mayu-chan is one surrounded by flowers and light, the early days of romance are a condensed and romanticised version of real events seen entirely from one perspective and coloured with the gradual fading of time. Nostalgia is an unreliable narrator, recasting real life as Hollywood fiction.

The warm and fuzzy glow of Side A is undercut by the subtly questionable actions of Mayuko and our own prejudices about why she might be with a guy like Takkun. Self-consciously cute, Mayuko makes needling suggestions – dress better, get contacts, learn to drive, which, objectively speaking, might all help Takkun to gain some much needed confidence if only he were not doing all of them solely because he fears losing a woman like Mayuko. If Mayuko wanted a guy she could remake and boss around, she might have come to the right place but she does, at least, also try to insist that she likes Takkun anyway and so any changes he makes to himself will make no difference to her.

Side B, by contrast, turns the dynamic on its head as Takkun’s Tokyo persona becomes increasingly violent, resentful, and cruel while Mayuko seems genuine, innocent, and hurt by the increasing distance between herself and the man she loves. Seduced by city sophistications, Takkun leans ever closer to dumping the innocent country bumpkin, a love he has now outgrown, for a leg up into the middle-classes by marrying the elegant daughter of a wealthy Tokyo businessman. He is, however, torn – between the nostalgic glow of first love’s innocence, and the realities of adult life, the certain past and the uncertain future.

This is the philosophy ascribed by Miyako (apparently given to her by her own first love) that the first failed romance is a crucial part of growing up, an “Initiation Love” that breaks your heart by revealing the idea of true love as a romantic fallacy, allowing you move into the adult world with a degree of emotional clarity. A sound idea, but also sad and cruel in its own way. The final twist, offered as a cynical punchline, can’t help but feel cheap, carrying mildly misogynistic undertones dressed up as a kind of joke aimed at cowardly men who are incapable making clear choices and refuse to see their romantic partners as real people rather than the self created images of them they maintain. Takkun remains torn, between past and future, town and country, old love and new but nostalgia is always a trap – a false impression of a true emotion that impedes forward motion with a promise of a return to something which can never be delivered.


Screened as part of the Japan Foundation Touring Film Programme 2018.

Screening again:

  • QUAD – 10 February 2018
  • Brewery Arts Centre – 2 March 2018
  • Filmhouse – 9 March 2018

Playlist: Side A

Yureru Manazashi (Kei Ogura)

Kimi wa 1000% (1986 Omega Tribe)

Yes-No (Of Course)

Lucky Chance wo Mo Ichido (C-C-B)

Ai no Memory (Shigeru Matsuzaki)

Kimi Dake ni (Shonentai)

Side B:

Momen no Handkerchief (Hiromi Ota)

Dance (Shogo Hamada)

Natsu wo Akiramete (Naoko Ken)

Kokoro no Iro (Masatoshi Nakamura)

Ruby no Yubiwa (Akira Teruo)

Show Me (Yukari Morikawa)