Hisashi Kimura, who is more known for his directorial work for television (e.g. 99.9 Criminal Lawyer 2016, 2018), is slowly venturing in the world of cinema. In 2019, he delivered two cinematic products, the mystery film Murder at Shijinso (2019) and the comedy Ninkyo Gakuen (2019). This time, Kimura brings Mikito Chinen’s successful novel Mask Ward to the silver screen.
One day, Shugo Hayami (Kentaro Sakaguchi), a doctor, is approached by his senior Tsukata Kosakai (Ryohei Otani) to ask if he is willing to take over his night duty at the nursing hospital, a former psychiatric hospital. Shugo Hayama accepts. While his night-duty goes fine at first, without any problems, his night is turned upside down when a man in pierrot mask breaks into the hospital and demands him to operate Hitomi Kawasaki (Mei Nagano), a university student that he shot on his way out from the convenience store he robbed.
Mask Ward is a narrative that is structured around multiple mysteries – four to be precise. One such mystery, the mystery surrounding Yoko’s tragic incident that marks the opening of the narrative, is quickly resolved via a flashback. This flashback does not only visualize the incident but also underlines why this tragic event still haunts Shugo – Yoko, Tsukata’s sister, was his beloved and the incident, a car-incident, did not only destroy the future he imagined with her, but also forces him, as he was the driver, to assume his guilt.
The second and third mystery, two interlinked mysteries, underpin and structure the dramatic unfolding of the narrative. The second mystery concerns the identity and the goal of the man in the pierrot mask. Who is he? Why did he shoot and abduct Hitomi Kawasaki? Why did he bring her to the hospital? What is his goal?
While some of the above questions are not that easy to answer – even as the narrative nears its end, it is nevertheless clear that the presence of Hitomi Kawasaki makes all the difference for Shugo. This young, injured woman, by being associated with his beloved through the repeated evocation “It hurts”, gives him a chance to break the chains of the guilt that imprison him. Whereas with his wounded beloved, he could do nothing – imprisoned in a passive position he watched her die, he is now roughly forced to take an active position and ensure that this young lady survives her shot-wound.
The third mystery concerns the hospital as such. Why is the operation-room, said to be unused for ages, modernized and fully equipped? How come certain patients underwent surgery? And who operates them? Even though it does not take long for the spectator to guess what is going behind the scenes in the hospital, the narrative path unfolding the hidden truth is engaging and has enough tension to keep the spectator on the edge of his seat. And even after the hidden truth is revealed, the spectator is kept guessing as to know how Shugo will deal with this truth and those who want to keep this ugly truth hidden from the public.
What makes Mask Ward so pleasing is that the narrative, after resolving the two central mysteries of the narrative, surprises the spectator with a final mystery. While we are not going to reveal this final mystery, we can reveal that this final mystery constitutes a pleasant plot-twist and makes the narrative that much more satisfying.
Besides providing a pleasant concatenation of mysteries, Mask Ward is also a narrative that questions the problematic interaction between profit and healthcare. In better terms, Kimura’s narrative shows how the dimension of profit has the inherent possibility to pervert the moral compass of the health provider – “Save those who can be saved” being nothing more than cleaned up version of “Save those who one can profit from”.
The composition of Mask Ward is effective in supporting the tension of the narrative. Kimura does not only use unsubtle methods, like the use of more frantic camera movement or, like in one instance, a sudden faced-paced composition, to heighten the tension, he also utilizes more subtle techniques, like shots with subtle camera shakiness, hand-held camera shots, and in more rare instances slow-moving zoom-in shots, to accentuate the tension of the hostage situation.
Nevertheless, Kimura’s cinematographical composition does suffer from some unnecessary visual and acoustic decorations (e.g. the use of slow-motion to introduce the character Shugo Hayami, the manner by which flash-backs are introduced, the dramatic use of thunder and lighting, …). Luckily, these unnecessary elements are not all that distracting and do not disturbs the otherwise pleasant cinematographical flow.
Mask Ward’s tensive atmosphere also benefits from the effective colour/lighting design. This design, which is reminiscent of some older J-horror films, strikes a nice and visually pleasing balance between a subtle washed-out naturalness and subtle greenish ominous darkness (Colour-note 1).
The musical accompaniment, which is subtle most of the time, aids in maintaining a minimum of tension in the unfolding of the narrative and heighten, whenever needed, the sense of mystery. By strengthening the dimension of mystery Kimura does not only succeed in putting the spectator in Shugo’s position – both want to uncover the mysterious secret of the hospital, but also to grasp, once and for all, the spectator’s attention.
Even though the visual aspects and the acoustic aspects of the composition are important in infusing tension into the unfolding of Mask Ward, these two dimensions function as a frame. So, while the cinematographical frame is important in generating tension, this frame can only truly become effective by the performances of the actors/actresses. Luckily, the acting in Mask Ward does not disappoint – Mei Nagano’s performance is great. Granted, while there are no true stand-out performances, all actors/actresses infuse the necessary emotionality in their performances to make the narrative believable and engaging.
Mask Ward is a pleasant thriller-mystery narrative. It might not offer anything new to the genre or reach the quality of classics of the genre, like Kurosawa’s Creepy (2016), but Kimura’s provides the thrills and the tension and packs enough surprises to engage and, ultimately, satisfy the spectator.
Colour-note 1: The flashbacks-sequences have a different colour-design than the sequences that frame the events at the hospital. In contrast to the slightly washed-out greenish tint of the hospital sequences, flashbacks are framed with a warmer yellowish palate.