I saw this movie on a plane, which is probably one of the best possible places to watch it. On a plane, you are locked into a set time and space, hoping to pass both with generally undiscerning judgement about sources of distraction. It doesn’t matter if a plane movie is good or not, it just matters that 1) it’s free and 2) it helps you crawl an inch closer to your destination on the flight map without having to think too much about being trapped inside the belly of a metal bird.* Also, on a plane, everyone can see you cry and there’s a healthy dose of shame that comes along with that public exposure. Given the slick melodrama this film employs to insipidly tug at your most base heart strings, you probably should feel a little shamed if Hana-chan no miso shiru (2015) compels you to cry. I know because I am no stranger to tears or shame. Kissing cousins, really. Thank goodness I had an aisle seat three rows upwind of the restrooms.
There’s nothing overtly terrible about the technical mechanics of this film. The staging and cinematography are unobtrusive and equally unmemorable†; Hirosue Ryoko continues to prove that she is a fine enough actress; and Akamatsu Emina, too young to actually act, mostly successfully occupies cinematic space without breaking the fourth wall more than a couple of times.
But, as with many mediocre melodramas, it isn’t the technique of the filmmaking that is problematic, but the ideological normativity of its content that is the very Shakespearean stuff its mediocrity is made on. Without relying on academic terms, I am referring to the moral code and social order upheld in the film that a viewer takes for granted as being right or true in order to be absorbed in the story and to –>feel things without thinking<– about why or how they have been made to feel that way.
In the film, hapless couple Chie (Hirosue) and Shingo (Takito Kenichi) fall in love and hope to marry. During their engagement, Chie is diagnosed with late-stage breast cancer and learns that the risk of childbirth is too high for her condition. Shingo, who previously divorced his first wife over her choice to not have children, is devastated that he is battling 0 for 2 in his personal genetic quest to lock down his goofiness for future generations in the Koseki.‡ However, Chie is really a very attractive lady so he sticks with her and they marry. When her cancer goes into remission, Chie and Shingo celebrate with unprotected sex and Chie conceives in a classic single-fire scenario. In considering high-risk pregnancy (and even more certain post-natal cancer recurrence) Chie is set on an early-term abortion to save her own life. Husband Shingo, though tremendously disappointed, pretends to be okay with the decision because that always works to save a relationship. However, Dad gets on the phone and, in decidedly below-the-belt rhetoric, tells Chie that the most important thing she can contribute to this life, this planet, this thing called humanity, is the gift of a child. Yes, even if it’s a zero-sum game. So Chie gives up her dream of being a world-class musician, gives birth, suffers cancer recurrence, trains her young daughter Hana in the arts of alternative medicine and home economics so that five-year-old Hana can look after capable adult male Shingo (who really should be looking after her, don’t you think?), and dies.§
Oh man, It’s so sad when Chie dies. Seriously. It’s cry-on-an-airplane sad.
So, that is one way to summarize the film.
Here is another: “Chie (Ryoko Hirosue) enjoys happy days with her boyfriend Shingo (Kenichi Takito), but she is diagnosed with breast cancer. Chie is shaken with anxiety, but her boyfriend asks her to marry him. Chie gives up hope of having a baby due to the drugs she takes for cancer treatment. Nevertheless, she gets pregnant. Even though she is risking her life giving birth, Chie gives birth to a healthy baby. Their baby is named Hana. Chie, Shingo and Hana live happily as a family, but …”—Asianwiki.com.
…But my version, which is a completely legitimate summary of the actual sequence of events? Well, my version of the story sounds fairly sexist and even more than a little horrifyingly violent against women. Doesn’t it.
While I’m sure there is plenty of space in the film for emotional identification for spectators including cancer survivors, cancer fighters, and the loved ones of cancer victims, I’d like to consider the ideological undercurrent of the film that has nothing to do with the emotionally charged overcoat of a cancer narrative. That is, a woman’s presumed biological imperative in contemporary Japanese society: motherhood.
In news to no one, Japan is experiencing a population decline and has been for over a decade. According to 2015 census reports, nearly a third of Japanese citizens are over the age of 65. And while birthrate decline concerns are largely about cultural and racial preservation and not actually about preserving the population of “citizens” (as it is so often coded), there are serious economic ramifications at stake. Not the least of these concerns are an aging workforce with fewer new bodies particularly in manual labor industries (perhaps solvable by supplementing with immigration and allowing naturalized citizenship procedures), strains on health industries and pension funds due to increasing numbers of senior citizens and fewer taxable workers (again, perhaps solvable by supplementing with immigration and allowing naturalized citizenship procedures), and considerable changes in cultural milieu including traditional practices, language patterns, habitus, and shared belief structures (<–not touching that with a ten-foot pole because it’s fraught and I respect the complications).
In response, over the years there have been numerous repopulation campaigns stemming from both government and grassroots coalitions. Dishearteningly, high-level public figures have decidedly draconian views about women. Ishihara Shintaro, the Governor of Tokyo from 1999 to 2012, once famously said, “It is a waste and a sin that women who have lost their reproductive capabilities are alive, (1)” and was not only reelected post-defamation, but was never backed into an apology. In fact, he doubled down on the sentiment very recently with the election of Koike Yumiko, Tokyo’s first female Governor, by describing her as “a caked-up old woman well past her prime.” Prime Minister Abe himself is deeply concerned about the so-called erosion of Japanese society he sees as a result of equal employment opportunity (and promotion) that keeps women in the office, out of the home, and from having children. Likewise, the former Health Minister of his LDP party views women as primarily “baby machines” to be used in the service of regenerating the population (Ibid).
Media, as always an ideological apparatus drawing funds from innumerable but worth investigating sources, plays an instrumental role in both reflecting and shaping public opinion and behavior.
(I did the work for you: Hana-chan no miso shiru recieved production funding from Nippon Television Network (a subsidiary of Yomiuri Shimbun, Japan’s conservative/right wing news conglomerate) and Sumitomo Life Insurance Co. (a, um, life insurance division of Sumitomo Mitsui Bank), so there’s that money trail. So good of a company that evaluates the monetary equivalent of life to lend money to a film that is evaluating the…value of life. No pressure!)
Over the years, there has been no shortage of advertising agendas that target women in order to sell the idea of motherhood in Japan. My favorite, only in the most masochistic sense, was a billboard of an otherwise naked woman adorned with baby paraphernalia—diapers, pacifiers, mobiles, baby blanket, etc.—to “sex up” the image of motherhood and entice young women into pregnancy for the good of a racially homogenous nation. (By the way, I tried to find an image for you but “sexy mom advertisement Japan” is not the right way to search for that in either Japanese or English.)
I have no image to illustrate that Google Image search for you. It’s up to you to choose your own terrible adventure.
Hana-chan no miso shiru is yet another example of a patriarchal agenda pushing the exulted status of motherhood for the sake of the (male dominant, racially “pure”) nation and, in this case, at extreme personal peril for women. In fact, it is this bargaining chip of personal sacrifice, borrowing on the archaic dichotomy of giri vs. ninjo ¶ (obligation vs. personal emotion) so romanticized throughout classical Japanese narratives that is so insidious to the subaltern, Japanese, female-encoded body. To be clear, in this depiction of society, a woman’s most important social function, her sole worth, is to reproduce the bodies that support the dominant social order, an order that supports the established power structure of men and that enables men to have the mobility to pursue destinies other than that prescribed by their most basic biological functions. Or, when a picture is worth so many more words…
It is not enough that Chie sacrifices her own life for her offspring. Nope. Her female child then takes on the role of housewife to look after the domestic needs of her literal patriarch: her father. Moreover, the voice of persuasion was Chie’s own father who tells her verbatim to sacrifice her female body to preserve the established social order. Moreover moreover (moreover!), in a duplicitous narrative twist, Chie’s father sacrifices his own well being (and thereby life) in order to fund alternative health care measures for Chie’s “treatment”—a weird filmic stance against Japan’s national health care system that is meant to be read as an insipid lived/died example of elderly father goodwill. Why duplicitous? Because the motion is not measure for measure. Rather, the father sacrifices his health at the end of a life journey of at least fifty years of career, personal exploration, and family life whereas the daughter is expected to forgo a career entirely and be happy with merely two-to-three decades on Earth. In this constructed narrative, men..and…insurance companies…decide on the term of a female lifespan and tell women what to do with their bodies. In return, she receives the greatest accolade any of us can expect to earn in a lifetime: recognition of a life well spent, and I do mean spent. How slick. How pernicious. How incredibly insincere.
Here’s the shame part. Did I shed some tears over Chie’s unsuccessful fight with cancer despite all my media studies training and ability to see through constructed BS? I sure did! Does it feel good to deconstruct a film that features cancer and its power to wreak havoc on families and communities? No, no it does not! But here’s what’s even worse: using the emotional arc of cancer to mask a patriarchal platform of propaganda to violently repress women into second-class objects of biological function.
As for free plane movies? You could do worse.
*It takes me three American films, or two Japanese films, to cross the continental US. Tangentially, I find this to be a fascinating way to think about the length of a film (time=space) that harkens back to a media age when film length was described in terms of feet (or FOOTAGE) instead of running minutes.
†With the noteworthy exception of the family’s amazing kitchen cabinetry. You’ll only know what I’m talking about in the very last scene of the film, but when you see it, you’ll be writing IKEA with supply demands.
‡The national family registry of Japan. It seems like a crazy thing if you are an American until you remember that you have a social security number and even the president’s birth certificate is apparently an issue of national security.
§I’m sure the decision making processes and priorities of the real life family on which the film is based are far more nuanced and complicated than what’s depicted on screen, but that’s the movies for you: edited for time and sloppy, irresponsible simplicity.
¶Auto correct really wants to change “giri vs ninjo” to “girl vs. ninja” which, in this present case, hits way too close to home.
- Shaken Josei 2001, November 6. Tokyo: Shufu to Seikatsu