The medical melodrama/love story, usually with a fatal outcome for one or more of the principals, is a staple of TV and films in Japan. Japanese audiences have traditionally loved a good cry and nothing supplies one like a young protagonist dying lingeringly and romantically. But this sub-genre has become so cluttered with formulas and clichés that producers seeking something new have to come up with ailments that occur in real life about once a blue moon – or only in fantasy.
That would seem to be the case with The 8-year Engagement, Zeze Takahisa’s drama about a young woman (Tsuchiya Tao) who falls ill with anti-NMDA receptor encephalitis – a rare form of brain inflammation – and lapses into coma just three months before her planned wedding to a nice-guy car mechanic (Satoh Takeru).
The film became a smash hit following its December 2017 release, selling nearly 2.5 million tickets. But it’s not the standard local tear-jerker.
For one thing, it’s based on a real-life case that became a YouTube sensation and then a best-selling 2015 autobiographical novel co-authored by the subject couple. Yes, “couple,” since the real-life bride-to-be came out of her coma and married her fiancé. But her struggle with illness continues.
The film follows the outlines of the couple’s story faithfully. Mai (Tsuchiya) and Hisashi (Satoh) meet at a restaurant mixer arranged by one of Hisashi’s co-workers. Called a gokon, usually with an even number of men and women, some total strangers to each other, this type of mixer has led to many a marriage in Japan, but the shy Hisashi says barely a word. Angered by what she sees as his stand-offish attitude, Mai pursues him after he makes an early exit and scolds him. Naturally, this is the beginning of a beautiful relationship.
Though a man of few words, Hisashi is considerate and kind, as well as being, even in his greasy work clothes, a hot-looking guy. And Mai, a vivacious ball of fire, brings him out of his shell. Smitten, he proposes marriage and, seeing a happy couple leave a wedding hall, asks a black-clad wedding planner for a reservation on the spot.
Soon after Mai begins to be strangely forgetful and, in one horrifying scene, suffers a sudden, hysterical collapse. An ambulance rushes her to the hospital and an ER team saves her life, but cannot wake her. Encephalitis is diagnosed, with a bad prognosis. Her chances of coming out of the coma are slim, of full recovery almost zero.
But Hisashi doggedly comes to her hospital on his motorbike every day and, as the weeks stretch into months, takes photos with his flip-phone to mark their time together, with Mai as an unconscious subject. Her mother and father (Yakushimaru Hiroko, Sugimoto Tetta) at first appreciate his loyalty but finally tell him to stop coming and get on with his life. He politely refuses. Then, miracles of miracles, Mai opens her eyes and begins a slow, painful recovery – but can remember nothing of her time with Hisashi.
Based on the novel, Okada Yoshikazu’s script does not sugar coat: Mai does not suddenly leap out her wheelchair with her memory restored. Instead, it highlights Hisashi’s quiet persistence and lasting devotion. Once again a stranger to Mai, he decides to win her love all over again.
How he does it is not complicated, but it will restore your faith in the human race – and make you understand why those 2.5 million ticket buyers left the theater without a single dry eye.
Zeze Takahisa (b. 1960) made his first film as a director, Gyangu yo, Mukou wa Hareteiruka in 1985. In 1986, he began working on “pink” films. Together with Sano Kazuhiro, Sato Toshiki, and Sato Hisayasu, Zeze came to be known as one of the “Four Heavenly Kings of Pink” for erotic output that downplayed the rape scenes then standard in the genre, focusing instead on the characters and their relationships, with touches of humor and whimsy. Afterwards Zeze alternated between pink and straight films. A breakthrough was the 4-hour-38-minute drama Heaven’s Story. In the current decade, Zeze has ascended the box office heights. His two-part legal drama 64 earned a collective $35 million in 2016. In 2017 Zeze returned to his pink film roots with The Lowlife, an ensemble drama set in the AV film world.
1989 – Kagai Jugyo: Boko
1997 – Kokkuri
2001 – Tokyo X Erotica
2010 – Heaven’s Story
2015 – Strayer’s Chronicle
2016 – 64: Part 1
2016 – 64: Part 2
2017 – The Lowlife
2017 – The 8-Year Engagement
2018 – My Friend A