The Japanese suicide rate has fallen for eight straight years, to 21,321 in 2017, but this number is still high compared to other advanced countries and is course of no consolation to the families of those who take their own lives.
The effect of suicide on one such family is the theme of Lying to Mom, the first feature by Nojiri Katsumi, a 43-year-old who rose through the assistant directing ranks. It is based on Nojiri’s original script, which was in turn inspired by the suicide of his own brother.
The film, though, is not a docudrama slice of life. Instead it recycles familiar tropes of the local family drama genre, from the comic to the tragic, while addressing the difficulty – or impossibility – of answering the question “why.”
It begins disturbingly with the reclusive Koichi (Kase Ryo) hanging himself in his room in his parents’ house. When his mother Yuko (Hara Hideko) discovers him she tries to cut him down but cuts herself instead and falls unconscious. Coming to in the hospital, she remembers nothing of her son’s death, to the consternation of her husband Yukio (Kishibe Ittoku), daughter Fumi (Kiryu Mai), Yukio’s sharp-tongued sister Kimiko (Kishimoto Kayoko) and Yuko’s easy-going brother Hiroshi (Omori Nao), who has just started a new business importing shrimp from Argentina.
Then Fumi blurts out that Koichi has left for Argentina to work for Hiroshi. Everyone backs her up, to Yuko’s joy, though they soon realize that maintaining the fiction of Koichi’s expatriation will not be easy.
This section is light comedy, with Fumi and the others creating a new life for Koichi, from fake letters to a redecorated room. Meanwhile, Fumi joins a support group for the bereaved. Hesitatingly she begins to bond with other members, including a woman who lost her 14-year-old daughter to suicide, but Fumi can’t bring herself to tell her own story.
Then the family’s elaborate ruse begins to farcically unravel, but as this story line reaches its climax, more truths emerge, from Fumi’s real feelings toward Koichi to what actually happened on the day of his death. Here the film drops its folky humor to reveal the real raw feelings Koichi’s presence – and absence – evoked.
In Ryo Kase’s brief, pitch-perfect turn we also see Koichi’s agony in both the silent clear and the explosive raw, though the mystery of his suicide is never fully explained.
Kase performance is matched by that of Kiryu Mai as Fumi. A newcomer who impressed as a spunky female sumo wrestler in Zeze Takahisa’s The Chrysanthemum and the Guillotine, Kiryu seethes as she holds in Fumi’s secrets, but when she finally erupts her anger comes from a dark history, not surface histrionics.
The film’s lesson is that though lies may soothe, real catharsis – and acceptance – comes from the truth.
That may be, but the Suzukis will never be same, even if Koichi were to be on the next flight from Buenos Aires.