“The world of mental illness is hidden behind a curtain,” says Kazuhiro Soda. The Japanese filmmaker’s second feature documentary, MENTAL, is a fascinating peek behind that curtain. Mental illness is terrifying for anyone who suffers from it. But mental patients in Japan have even more to contend with, as society shuns them and the government politicizes their care. Sit in on my talk with Soda, and have your consciousness raised.
Mental recently won Best Documentary at Pusan Film Festival and Dubai Film Festival, and is slated to play at Berlin Film Festival the first week in February. Mental is cinema verite—a filmmaking method whereby the director finds and records actual events, without prompting or scripting the participants. It was the ideal means to meet the variegated personalities of Chorale Okayama, an outpatient mental clinic in Japan. Soda interspersed observation and interviews of mental patients, staff, volunteers, and home mental health aides. He elaborated on his process in the Director’s Statement:
”In Mental, my aim is to get rid of [mental illness’] invisible curtain, not by sending political messages, but simply by observing. The most important attitude for me as a filmmaker was to look straight with my own eyes and my camera at the world of patients—without any preconceived or fixed ideas, without labeling them as ‘the weak,’ ‘the dangerous,’ or even as ‘the great.’ In order to do that, just like in my previous film Campaign, I tried to shoot as freely and spontaneously as possible without preparing anything beforehand.
In the editing, I did not use any narration, super-imposed titles, or music, so that I can show the complex reality as it is, avoiding stereotypical simplification. I also tried to stimulate the audience’s active observation, leaving lots of room for them to freely interpret what they see on the screen. In addition, I tried to recreate the time and space I experienced so that the audience will feel as if they visited the clinic and saw these patients themselves.”
For a filmmaking public accustomed to speed and special effects, Soda’s nod to simplicity is bold. Mental begins with a conversation between a woman, who shyly unfolds an account of her suicide attempt, and Dr. Yamamoto, her impartial male therapist. The action moves slowly, but the viewer is drawn in to the narrative. Some characters surprise, some shock, and others inspire. Yet Mental is far from a feel-good story. In taking a wide-angle shot of mental illness in Japan, Soda shows us the crushing setbacks and incremental gains of the patients. The viewer respects Soda’s commitment to realism.
I talked with Kazuhiro Soda after viewing Mental, and appreciated his candor as he described how the film, and mental illness, intersected with his own life.
Stevenson: What inspired you to do Mental? How did the project get off the ground?
Soda: When I was a student at Tokyo University, I ran a prestigious student newspaper as an editor in chief. Because of too much stress and workloads, all of a sudden, I found myself unable to do anything. I thought it was a psychological problem I was having, so I rushed to see a doctor at a mental clinic. I was diagnosed with “burn-out syndrome.” Since I quit the job as the editor right away, I quickly recovered. But the experience made me realize that anybody, including me, can become mentally ill.
Ten years later, I was making my living as a documentary filmmaker. While I was making a documentary for a Japanese TV network in Tokyo, once again, I almost mentally collapsed because of too much stress and workload. And when I looked around myself, there were so many colleagues of mine who were at risk of becoming ill. Actually, I thought the whole country was somewhat suffering from psychological or mental problems.
However, the mental illnesses remain a big taboo in Japan. Most patients do not tell their friends, colleagues, or even family members that they have illnesses because of the fear of prejudices. If you see documentaries about mentally ill patients, filmmakers typically blur the faces of the patients to hide their identity, which makes the taboo even bigger.
I thought maybe I should make a documentary about the mentally ill without these blurry effects. I should make a documentary which breaks the taboo. Luckily, my mother-in-law was working with a mental clinic, Chorale Okayama, which gave me permission to come in with my camera.
Stevenson: Did you have any reservations about filming/interviewing the mentally ill?
Soda: Yes. But eight or nine out of ten patients we asked for permission to shoot declined our offer. So, whenever I found somebody who allowed me to shoot, I felt more thrilled than reserved.
When they told me something very personal and sensitive, [it] made me think about whether I should use it or not. For example, one of the patients confessed to the camera that when she had her first baby, she was so overwhelmed and desperate that she killed the newborn. I had to think about it for a long time before I finally decided to include it in the movie.
Stevenson: Being a parent myself, that scene affected me deeply. I can understand your reservations. What special challenges do the mentally ill face in Japan?
Soda: Obviously, just like everywhere in the world, the social prejudice is a big challenge. They are also often in poverty since they are unable to work, which doesn’t help them heal.
Stevenson: During your filming, what did you learn about suicide, and how it affects those left behind?
Soda: I was struck by the fact that almost everybody I met at the clinic had this desire to kill themselves. And two of the patients who appeared in the film [have] already done so. In a sense, [mental illness] is a fatal disease, just like cancer. I don’t know how it affects the patients left behind, but I’m emotionally affected.
Stevenson: How is Mental related to your previous work?
Soda: Mental is the second film in the “observational film series” I created.
Campaign, my first observational film, was about the inner workings of the Liberal Democratic Party, the most dominant political party in Japan. In a sense, it was about the mentality of people at the core of the society. They are somewhat brain-washed by the value of the society. They don’t really think about why certain rules exist, even if they are absurd. They just accept them and play by the rules.
Mental is about the opposite kind…of people. Patients are usually at the fringe of the society, and they ask questions about life and society because they cannot accept them as they are. Or, since many of the patients used to be at the core of the society as elite businessmen or bureaucrats before they collapsed, you could almost see it as “before and after.” When the “spell” begins to loosen for any reason, we are at risk of falling down.
My next observational film, working title Seinendan, is about a very influential, genius playwright/theater director, Oriza Hirata, and his company. I am in the middle of shooting, so I don’t know exactly, but I guess it deals with people who are somewhere in between Campaign and Mental.
Stevenson: What was a greater motivation for you in Mental–giving the voiceless a voice, or encouraging the rest of us to view and treat the mentally ill with compassion?
Soda: I was just curious, and wanted to see the world of the mentally ill. I didn’t really have noble motivations. But as a result, I am aware that the film could give the voiceless a voice, and encourage people to view the patients with compassion. I do hope it will.
Stevenson: What does the younger generation need to know about mental illness?
Soda: That they can become mentally ill at any time.
Stevenson: Did you do all the filming yourself? Anything you’d like to share about the technical aspects of Mental’s production?
Soda: Yes, I operated the camera and recorded the sound at the same time. It’s only possible because of the recent digital revolution. Since my wife Kiyoko Kashiwagi personally knew many of the patients, she was with me pretty much all the time while I was shooting.
Since I was operating the camera, I wasn’t really affected by the tough stories patients told us. Even when they were telling us the most disturbing things, I was OK since I was concerned about my focus, aperture, and camera angles.
However, Kiyoko was without the camera. She was deeply affected by the stories, and became really ill. She thought she [had] become mentally ill, and made an appointment with Dr. Yamamoto, the doctor we were shooting!
As a husband, I was worried about her. But as a filmmaker, I thought it was an interesting turn of events. If I could have filmed her as a part of the story, it could be really interesting and ironic!
So when she entered the consultation room, I did so with my camera. But as soon as I entered, Kiyoko yelled at me and told me to leave. She said that she was going to complain about me to the doctor! So, I missed possibly the best scene in the movie. Fortunately, she has completely recovered now.
I’m glad that Kiyoko has recovered. Yet I’m sobered by this reminder of how the many strains of life can drag us down into an emotional abyss. Mental health is an issue that touches all of us. Soda’s illumination, through a Japanese lens, helps Japanese and non-Japanese understand their culture, and their humanity, by allowing them to question the boundaries between normal and neurotic.
Don’t miss Mental. It’s very much off the beaten path, yet artfully executed, and eloquent in its balance between heartbreak and hope.
Visit Mental’s website, LaboratoryX, for more on Soda and a schedule of screenings for Mental.
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