(Warning: not exactly spoilers, but this review does include some detailed info about the latter half of the film.)
Japanese cinema of the last 20 years (and much earlier) includes no shortage of sentimental melodramas featuring attractive leads and storylines about slow death or unrequited love. Some of these are seishun eiga (“youth films”) like the recent Aozora eeru (Yell for the Blue Sky, 2016) or “someone has a terminal illness” movies like Hana-chan no miso shiru (Hana-chan’s Miso Soup, 2015). They tend to do reasonably well at the box office, are often advertised with clips of audience members crying and talking about how much they cried, and for the most part are rarely seen by people outside Japan. If Lying to Mom, a movie that centers on hikikomori, depression, suicide, and grief, had stayed in that lane, it probably wouldn’t have struck such a nerve with me. But it frequently presents itself as something more—as the type of movie that might get critical attention, that asks probing questions and features thoughtful performances instead of surface-level schmaltz and faces carefully dabbed with glycerin-tears. And then it repeatedly pulls the rug out from under the audience by throwing in a tired sex joke or a clownish performance.
Yes, it is entirely possible to find humor in stories about depression and suicide (check out the podcast The Hilarious World of Depression and Ali Brosh’s famous series of comics on Hyperbole and a Half if you don’t believe me). It’s also possible to make darkly or even lightly comic films about hikikomori and other mental health issues (see the wonderful short film Neet of the Living Dead and the novel-manga-anime Welcome to the NHK). But unless you’re going for full-on satire, I’d argue that you need to have…a basic respect for the idea that these are real problems with often tragic consequences? That they’re not, you know, just punchlines?
Sadly, Lying to Mom doesn’t seem to get that.
The film begins with a very long and very graphic depiction of a suicide (we later learn that the young man, Koichi [Ryo Kase], has been a hikikomori for many years). His mother, Yuko (Hideko Hara, possibly familiar to English-speaking audiences as the wife from Shall We Dance?) finds his body and appears to try to commit suicide herself. His younger sister, Fumi (Mai Kiryu) is the one who finds them both on the ground. This is all played completely straight, and it’s very, very sad. (It was at this point that I began to have serious doubts about this film’s ideas about “comedy.”)
Cut to a month later. Mom is in a coma (we never learn exactly why—her injuries in the first scene don’t appear to be that serious, but this movie requires a coma, and a coma it shall have). Doctors aren’t sure if she will ever awaken. Father Yukio (veteran actor Ittoku Kishibe) and daughter Fumi are struggling to live their daily lives with the help of a very shouty and hostile aunt (Kayoko Kishimoto, in one of several unflattering and caricatured portrayals of female characters) and a buffoonish uncle (Nao Omori, who has done much better work than this).
Then Mom suddenly wakes up with retrograde amnesia—she doesn’t remember trying to kill herself or the death of her son. On the spot, the family concocts a complicated lie—the son isn’t dead, he’s overcome his very serious mental health issues and has taken a job in Argentina with the uncle’s business. Mom is overjoyed.
This type of lie isn’t entirely unrealistic—in Japan it’s still not uncommon, for example, for doctors to lie to patients about the seriousness of a terminal illness, the idea being that if patients know the truth they might “give up the fight.” But the extent to which the family in Lying to Mom maintains and builds on this lie over a period of months—exchanging fake postcards with “Koichi,” decorating his empty room with Argentinian flags and soccer jerseys, posing in Che Guevara t-shirts—quickly begins to feel ridiculous. It isn’t all silliness—there are hints that the lie is soothing for the father and the daughter, who can imagine a reality that never came to be, and for the mother, who can finally let go of the guilt that she felt over her son’s depression and inability to leave his room for years. There’s a running theme about the less-than-true stories we all tell ourselves in order to be happy.
Where things go deeply, dreadfully wrong, though, is in the decision to mix this story with frequent forays into slapstick and screwball comedy. Again, that’s not to say that it’s impossible to find humor in tragedy, or to make a dark comedy about suicide or hikikomori, but this film does it so jarringly, with so little regard for its characters or the reality of their lives, that it feels like an insult to anyone who’s ever dealt with these problems in real life.
It also has a serious woman problem. Multiple female characters are portrayed as shrill, cartoonish harpies who seem borrowed from a variety show sketch. Their over-the-top interactions with the main characters—who, remember, are experiencing very real grief over the recent suicide of a loved one—were, I suppose, intended to add levity, but they just come across as squirm-inducing. This is particularly true for a middle-aged, heavily made-up woman (Chiaki Kawamo) who attends a grief support group and boorishly interrupts everyone in the group with meaningless platitudes. Her performance is completely out of sync with everyone else in her scenes, including main character Fumi, and feels flown in from a different movie.
It’s not just the women. Every line uttered by Nao Omori, who plays the uncle, is delivered with a clownish expression (his story arc involves him marrying a 20-year-old Argentinian, which makes no sense unless you consider that the film needed an excuse to stage a wedding party and gather everyone together). Employees at a soapland (brothel) seem plucked from a yakuza film parody. Even a random insurance saleswoman who appears on screen for only a few seconds delivers her lines in an oddly chipper, high-pitched voice.
But there are also moments that feel completely natural and authentic. Perhaps one of the reasons I responded so viscerally to this movie is because parts of it are very, very good, even brave. It explores the messier aspects of grief and suicide—the way that family members blame each other, the way that grief and pain change but never completely go away, the horrible sense of isolation that a family member’s depression or suicide causes (especially in a country like Japan, where discussing these topics openly is still mostly taboo). Many of the actors give stellar performances. As the teenage Fumi, Mai Kiryu is never less than believable. She has a lengthy speech near the end of the film, shot in a long, heartbreaking closeup on her face, that is shockingly good. Thus it’s especially painful when she’s forced to share the screen with characters who seem to just be mugging for the camera. As the mother, Hideko Hara transitions believably between blindly hopeful and devastated, but the film doesn’t allow her enough depth, instead shuttling her quickly back into the role of forgiving and self-sacrificing matriarch before she’s had any real time to process her grief.
Nowhere is the film’s misguided tendency toward mixing slapstick and tragedy more evident than in the inevitable “Mom finds out the truth” scene. By all accounts, this should be a deeply traumatic moment for everyone involved—a woman is about to learn that the son she thought was alive actually committed suicide months ago, and the people who have been hiding the truth from her are going to have to deal with the consequences. But again, this scene–which takes place at the uncle’s highly implausible wedding party–is played for cheap laughs, with one random character drunkenly starting a fistfight and other characters desperately trying to defuse the situation. Poor Fumi is put in perhaps the most humiliating position possible, forced to film her mother lighting birthday candles and singing to the absent brother. And then, in a truly horrifying and lengthy flashback, we see Yuko desperately trying to cut the noose that her son’s corpse is hanging from.
This is yet another problem—for a film that’s trying to be a combination of tearjerker and goofy comedy, Lying to Mom is filled with deeply disturbing imagery. The scene of the suicide appears repeatedly throughout the film from different people’s perspectives, each time quite explicit and violent. Characters describe terrible things that happened in the past, which would have been powerful enough on its own, but the film then has to hammer home the point by showing a flashback of the scene described. There’s a moment in a brothel in which a pimp tells a sex worker to give Yukio oral sex in front of his daughter, and the woman gets so close to actually doing it that I had to look away.
The film’s plot takes one unbelievable turn after another, with characters doing and saying things that no real human would do or say in these situations. Without giving everything away, I’ll say that the movie 1) imagines that lying to a mother about her son’s suicide for months after his death is both plausible and ethical, 2) imagines that said mother wouldn’t be at all angry with her family after finding out the truth, and 3) believes that a few months after the suicide everyone in the family would basically be okay, all the messiness of grief be damned.
Hikikomori, depression, and suicide are very real and very serious problems in Japan, problems that more than a few people watching Lying to Mom will likely have experienced. And there are moments when the film actually seems ready to deal with them in a meaningful way—when it touches on the complicated feelings that family members of hikikomori feel, the outside world’s lack of understanding, and the messiness and confusion of grief. But for the most part it uses these concepts as devices to get the audience to either laugh or cry, twisting a mostly-plausible story so endlessly that it’s impossible to feel much of anything by the time the movie is over. This was a film that clearly had the means to say something powerful. I wish it had been brave enough to say it without hiding behind cheap jokes and plot contrivances.