a page of madness

film writing by nicholas vroman

An Interview with Kazuhiro Soda, Director of Mental

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This interview was done in spring, 2009

N – How was Mental received at the Japanese premier (at the Yubari Film Festival)?

Soda – It was intense, actually. The screening ended around 12:45 am. And then our Q & A lasted until 2 o’clock in the morning. And then we called it a day, but then there were so many people who wanted to talk about the film that we were in the lobby until 3. And it’s always the case – as soon as the film finishes, everyone wants to talk about it. I mean that’s the nature of the film or rather, the subject matter (mental illness). And it also has something to do with the fact there aren’t so many chances to talk about it – this issue – because, usually, everybody’s a little bit hesitant, Even though somebody you know or somebody in your family is suffering from the same kind of illness, because of its nature, because of the taboo, people are not used to talking about it. But because of the film, people pour their emotions; pour out their thoughts and questions. And that’s what happens after the film. In Berlin, too, we ended our Q & A discussion around 1:40 am and we had to get out of the room, get out of the theater because the theater had to close the door. Pusan too. The same thing happened. Everywhere I go I see the same reactions.

N – It’s been written that in Japanese society it’s a difficult subject for people to talk about. But I’m also wondering, isn’t it a difficult subject in most cultures – for people to talk about? I’m wondering, do you think that talking about and dealing with mental illness is fundamentally different in Japan than what you’ve seen in the rest of the world?

Soda – I don’t think it’s fundamentally different. I think it’s the same everywhere, although there are some differences in the minor sense, but basically they are the same. For example, in the United States, my observation is that all the people have shrinks. And whenever one has some psychological problem, for instance, or things one wants to talk about, they go to their own shrink. Right? Therapists. But that’s pretty much it. If your condition is serious enough to be hospitalized in a mental institution, that’s a different thing. That means you’ve gone crazy. And you are not a human being anymore. And that’s how I feel. That’s how I observe the American society. I think it’s a little better than the Japanese situation, because people, at least, have no problem going to a shrink.

N – It’s like step one.

Soda – Yeah, step one. That’s already better than the Japanese situation, because in Japan, people cannot even go to the therapist because that’s already a big deal. Or, there is no concept of going to a therapist when you have psychological problems. So, in the United States it’s a little bit better but if you are serious enough to be hospitalized, I think it’s a different story. It’s already a separate world. And I think that’s pretty much always the case around the world, as far as I know.

N – I’ve noticed that too. I think in our lifetime, the attitudes are slowly changing as medicine has kind of determined that a lot of mental illness is physical. Whereas before was, if you have mental illness your problems are something else – you’re a bad person, you drink too much, you take too many drugs. There’s always an excuse, instead of saying, well, there is a serious physical problem that’s causing your illness. And I think that attitude is slowly changing in the USA. Do you think Japan is changing its attitude toward mental illness?

Soda – Yeah, I think so. I think it’s getting better. In the United States, they’ve started to use the word “brain disorder” rather than mental illness. And that’s a sign. Just like you said, people are more seeing it as a physical illness rather than a mental illness. I think that’s a good point and that’s a good angle to look at it, but at the same time I think there is a danger to it, because that has a connotation, in that, if you put medication, proper medication you can be cured. But that’s not always the case. It’s not totally physical. The cause of the illness could be physical, but not all the time. And… so it’s very, you know, if you go too much toward that direction, we will be lost as well. I mean really it’s a very complicated issue, a complicated illness, and we can’t really point our finger to one thing and say this is it. That’s how I feel.

N – You’ve seen reactions to the film – small reactions, now – showing it at film festivals. What do you want your film to do?

Soda – When I thought about making this film my objective was just to get rid of this curtain that divides so-called healthy people and so-called sick people. I noticed that there is this invisible curtain between us although we are on the same ground – We artificially put this curtain up so that we can pretend that the world behind this curtain not there – that there is nothing behind it. And my main objective was just to get rid of this curtain and to see what’s going on. What’s inside. And my film is not thematically driven. There is no objective beyond that. For me, I as an outsider went to this clinic and saw different kinds of people – talked to different kinds of people – and left. I wanted to recreate my experience as a cinematic experience so that people can experience my experience through my eyes as if they encountered these people. And that’s the experience I want people to feel. It really depends on the person what kind of thing they take from that experience. What kind of interpretation they make. What kind of thoughts they come up with. And I just wanted to provide this virtual experience or I wanted to depict the world I saw, so that people can see it. A taboo is a taboo because nobody talks about it. By just talking about it I think the taboo’s gone. So, hopefully, by doing so the taboo about mental illness will get weaker and people feel less pressured to having the illness or to having somebody in the family with the illness or having less fear toward mental patients. That’s something that can result from what I tried to do.

N – One thing that struck me about the Mental and Campaign is that you’re following in the footsteps of like Fredrick Wiseman – looking at Japanese institutions in the way that he looked at American institutions. His style, though, was very much the fly-on-the-wall style. Nobody talks to him. He’s always watching. But in your film there’s a lot of direct address. People talking directly to the camera, which I think is – in regard to the curtain – is a way to break it down. For the audience there’s a person directly talking to them, telling them their story, and humanizing it. So, instead of looking back at “crazy people” from a safe distance, they’re talking to you – and their story may be totally “crazy” but you have to engage with it. Is that a very conscious strategy on your part?

Soda – Very interesting question. Actually, I love Frederick Wiseman. I am inspired by him. With my previous film, Campaign, I tried to do the same. And I was successful at being invisible, being a fly on the wall. I told people, OK, please forget about me. I’m not here and even though I’m shooting. And because people in the campaign they are good at playing the role as father, as politician, as… whatever. If given a role, they are able to play it. That’s the nature of politicians. I mean, most of us do it. As a journalist you act as a journalist. As a filmmaker, I act as a filmmaker. We always have this role. Right? And we can act, in a sense, as we’re told. And the politicians in Campaign are so good at it. I was able to pull it off and I felt I was master of being invisible. But when I went to Karokurokayama, I tried to do the same and uh, but nobody did what I wanted – what I asked them to do. For example, Sugano, the poet, who says Cut, Cut, Cut – the poet. He started doing that, and I said, well. Sugano san, I’m not here. You know, I’m here, but I’m not here. So don’t talk to me. But no matter how many times I told him, he says Cut – or he talks to me saying wonderful things. I mean, wonderful things. But when I was shooting I was like why, why do you talk to me? Please leave me alone. And I was a bit puzzled and confused, although what he was telling me was really interesting and fascinating, I was thinking, maybe I won’t be able to use it. Sugano’s scene was one of the first scenes I shot and then when I moved on to other people almost everybody else did the same. They didn’t let me be just invisible. They didn’t. They didn’t allow me to. They always talked to me. They were always curious. They always asked me questions. Or comments. So I though, hmm…. In a sense documentary is to record the relationship between the filmmaker and the subject. That’s what it is. That’s what documentary is all about. So, in that sense, it’s much more interesting and fruitful and… natural to record our relationships. Because these subjects are different, I should have a different relationship with them. And I should record that. And I should reflect that on the finished film. So that’s how I thought. So that’s why I became more open and to communicate with the patients. In many cases they initiated the communication and I just went with the flow. I just rode the waves they created. And that’s how that happened. So it was not intentional at the very beginning, but I felt it was rather interesting to let happen.

N – Do you think this may affect how you will approach future subjects?

Soda – Yeah, yeah, yeah, sure! Interesting, I’m shooting a theatre company now. It’s about Kira Daoriza, and his company. I’m almost done with shooting. But, they… they can play the role. I mean, they are actors. So my next film will probably be more like Campaign. More like me being a fly on the wall. So, it really depends on the subject. And it is more like – I record my relationship to the subject, rather than I have a set style and whatever I shoot I kind of have to squeeze everything into that style. I don’t want to do that. So, I’m open to different kinds of approaches.

N – So, have the subjects of your film seen it?

Soda – Yeah, I had a special screening for the patients and the staff who appear in the film. That was last November. I felt the need to do that before I opened it in Japan, because I wanted to make this film everybody’s film. Not just mine. And obviously it was not an easy decision for them to be in the film. 8 or 9 people out of ten I asked for permission declined. So the people who decided to be in the film had really made a real commitment. Just being in the film was such a big deal, because there is this fear that if you are coming out – if you come out – you might be attacked. You might be a victim of prejudice. There is a sense of fear in being exposed. And that’s what they are doing. So, they made a commitment and I made a commitment and so, it needed to become our film, rather than my film. And that’s what I did. But that was not easy. As soon as I announced the screening, some people were so afraid. Should I watch it? Or should I not watch it? Am I ready to face what’s recorded? Can I deal with it? So there were all kinds of questions. All kinds of fear. It created a little bit of turmoil among patients and some people finally decided not to come. It was not easy. I especially I was worried about one patient who ended up losing her child.

N – Yes, probably the hardest story of the bunch.

Soda – Yes, a very hard story. Although she agreed to be in the film and she voluntarily spoke about it. And after the filming, she said she was really glad she could finally talk about it. But I sensed that she never talked about it before – to anybody. And I thought, should I include that in the film? I had to think twice, three times, many times before I decided to include it. Because, who knows what kind of reactions she would get once she’s exposed the truth in public. In the media, usually, her act is just evil. You know… a killer. She could be attacked because of that. And I was really worried about that. But I decided to include it because if I didn’t I don’t think anybody can fully understand her pain and suffering. But I wanted to represent her fairly, so that’s why I took time. 16 minutes. It’s a pretty long sequence, but I had to fully cover her story so that I wouldn’t just pick and choose the most sensational stuff.

N – And the way it works, you don’t feel it’s sensational. You feel it’s this horrible tragedy…

Soda – … but you feel sympathy. So, it’s not black and white. She’s not evil. You can feel the human side of her. And so I decided to include it that way, but still I was worried about how people would react. And also she was worried. At first she didn’t want to see it. But I wanted her to see it because what if she hears about second hand? Then, she might be devastated. So, I wanted to drag her into the screening. I wrote a letter to her and she decided to come. But then she got scared and on the day of the screening decided not to come. But then, again, she wanted to see it and she came by taxi. But when she made it to the screening her scene was over. At the Q and A she raised her hand in front of everybody and said, “You didn’t include the scene, did you?” But then, another patient, who was in the first scene raised her hand and said, “I’m so glad to know your true suffering now. I didn’t know that. I now understand you better.” And then, we opened up the discussion and she felt much better. In the end, she’s happy that she’s in the film. She told me she didn’t think anybody would be on her side if he or she knew about this story. She thought everybody would be an enemy. But that was not the case. She’s been thinking that for 15 years. And also she felt by telling the story, probably somebody who is in the same position as her might be encouraged or might feel better or might see some salvation or light – so she might be able to help somebody else. So, that’s why she now feels now that she was in it. So, that kind of process is really important. I was really on the rollercoaster – emotional roller coaster ride – but I’m glad I went through it. And this kind of thing would never happen if I put the blur effects on peoples’ faces to hide their identities, because if you put these effects nobody has to face that kind of question or dilemma. Nobody. As a filmmaker I’m safe because hid the identity. So I’m not responsible. And the subject – they might feel upset, but they don’t care, because their face is not on the screen. So nobody’s facing the real question. Nobody’s facing the real heart of the problem. By just simply showing the face and simply telling the story we are facing the real issue and that’s what it’s really about. This film’s all about that. That’s really what I’m hoping to happen everywhere.


Written by Nicholas Vroman

February 17, 2010 at 9:45 am

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