Closed Ward/Family of Strangers (2019) review

Introduction

Hideyuki Hirayama might not be a well-known director, but his oeuvre is littered with award-winning narratives. With his The Games Teachers Play (1992), for instance, he won the Directors Guild of Japan New Directors Award and his Begging for Love (1998) won the International press award (FIPRESCI) in Montreal World Film Festival, the Japan Academy Prize for Director of the Year, and the Mainichi Film Award for Best Director. His latest narrative, a new adaptation of Hosei Hahakigi’s novel Closed Ward, also succeeded in winning two awards at the Golder Rooster awards.

Review

One day, during a consultation at Rokuoji mental hospital arranged by her mother, Yuki (Nana Komatsu) hears that she is pregnant. Flabbergasted by this unwelcome truth, she runs away from the consultation room and, at the elevator, runs into Hidemaru Kajiki (Tsurube Shofukutei), a murderer who was send to the institution after his execution failed – an execution that left him impaired. On the roof, Yuki jumps off the building.  

Due to her suicide-attempt, Yuki is immediately admitted to the hospital. While, at first, she refuses to speak to anyone – distancing herself from everybody, she suddenly starts talking to Hidemaru Kajiki and, some time later, to Chu-san (Gou Ayano), a former salaryman who is now battling with auditory hallucinations.

Family of Strangers/Closed Ward (2019) by Hideyuki Hirayama

Family of Strangers is a narrative that explores the social-embedded nature of mental suffering as well as the importance of social bonds for the well-being of the subject. But that is not all. As the greater part of the narratives takes place within a psychiatric institution, Hiruyama’s narrative also offers a partial exploration of the Japanese psychiatric system.

What does Family of Strangers teach us about the Japanese psychiatric system? Firstly, that the Japanese psychiatric institution functions, like in most countries, as a small community structured by Other of the hospital (Psycho-note 1). The Other of the hospital offers a structured daily rhythm to its patients and activities like gardening, calligraphy, pottery, karaoke contests, morning exercise, etc.

Another aspect of the Japanese psychiatric system – an aspect not unique to the Japanese system – is revealed in the confrontation between Chu-san and the nurse concerning his illegal shop. In this confrontation, she threatens him with locking him up. This threat exposes the ugly truth of the psychiatric institution: the fact that the mental institution, beyond aiming for the stabilization and improvement of its patients, functions as a system of power – a system with threats and punishments.

Family of Strangers/Closed Ward (2019) by Hideyuki Hirayama

Lastly, Family of Strangers implies that the Japanese mental institution is focused on keeping the peace in the hospital by ensuring that patients are medicated and forcing them to abide to the rules (Pycho-note 1). While there is nothing wrong with stabilizing people with medication and asking them to abide the rules, it becomes problematic if these means to reintegrate the patients in society become the end-goals as such. What is missing from the psychiatric system as depicted here is the invitation to speak. The subject is never invited to verbalize his suffering and his transgressions, if any, never utilized as a starting point for conversation. The fact that such invitation is missing and, thus, that the logic of the subject remains unquestioned dooms the psychiatric institution to orchestrate its own failure – the victim is, of course, the already suffering subject. This highly problematic truth is made painfully clear via Yuki’s trajectory.  

The socially embedded nature of mental suffering, the fact that the symptom is always function of the Other, is most clearly explored via Yuki’s trajectory (Narra-note 1). Yuki’s problem is not only that she hides herself in her room – an acting-out to escape from the threatening Other and signal her suffering, but that she refuses to speak, that she has failed to find, within the Other, an address for her suffering. This failure is one of the reasons why she swiftly undertakes a suicide attempt in the form of a passage-a-l’acte (Narra-note 2 (spoiler)).

Family of Strangers/Closed Ward (2019) by Hideyuki Hirayama

The importance of social bonds for the well-being of the subject is underlined by four changes. The first change is that Yuki re-finds her voice. What allows her to speak? It is not the demand of the Other (e.g. the nurse) to speak and provides answers, but the lack of such demand. She can speak because Hidemaru Kajiki gives her the time and space to find her voice. Nevertheless, the re-finding of her voice is not enough. Even though Yuki can allude to her suffering in her speech, use speech to socially engage with the other, and use her voice to express demands (to her mother) to destroy her traumatic context, her traumatic suffering, as such, remains untouched, remains unvocalized (Narra-note 3 (spoiler), Psycho-note 2).

The second change concerns the heartwarming bonding between Yuki, Hidemaru and Chu-san as such and the third and fourth change are subjective changes visualized in the moving finale of Family of Strangers – a finale that is only able to become so touching due to Nana Komatsu’s wonderful acting performance. These changes powerfully underline that a partial solution to one’s mental struggle must be found in the Other, by making social bonds with others and forming a minimal but protective network for the subject that suffers.  

Family of Strangers/Closed Ward (2019) by Hideyuki Hirayama

Family of Strangers also touches upon the prejudices Japanese people have concerning so-called ‘crazy people’. It is not literally vocalized, but it is subtly implied, via the speech of the shopkeepers, that many people think that these co-called crazy people are a danger for society. Nothing could be more wrong. For people dealing with a certain psychological problem nothing is more dangerous than society, in other words, the Other. Later, in the confrontation between Chu-san and his brother and sister, another implicit thought about crazy people is brought to the fore: the fact that they, due to their inability to participate in society, are a burden for the familial others/Other.

The danger of the film – a danger any film dealing with psychiatry faces – lies in the fact that, in its attempt to paint a realistic picture of the inner workings of a psychiatric institution and touch upon what is, normally, safely tucked away within Japanese society, it could corroborate certain prejudices about those who suffer mentally. Family of Strangers runs this risk as a narrative because, to evoke its positive message, it utilizes three protagonists that function radically different from its supporting cast. In fact, one could even contend that Hirayama’s narrative evokes its message by utilizing protagonists who, strictly speaking, do not belong in a psychiatric institution (Psycho-note 3).   

Family of Strangers/Closed Ward (2019) by Hideyuki Hirayama

The composition of Family of Strangers is plain and straightforward – offering a mix of fixed shots, spatial moving shots and tracking moving shots. The aspect that stands out in the otherwise naturalistic composition is the way Hirayama has used the colour/lightning design to distinguish the flashbacks from the current narrative. While the narrative in the present is framed with darkish but natural colour/lightning design, the flashbacks are framed with more a more monochrome colour-design (Cine-note 1).

The use of flashbacks does not only make the narrative structure more pleasant, but also deepens our understanding of Hidemaru and Yuki’s position by exploring their problematic or traumatic past. Chu-san’s flashback, in this respect, does not have the same effect, because the emphasis in the narrative is not on his hallucinations, but his social struggle with his relatives.     

Family of Strangers/Closed Ward (2019) by Hideyuki Hirayama

Family Of Strangers is a narrative that will leave the spectator conflicted – and this is a compliment. Hirayama’s narrative reveals in a very moving way the importance of forming social bonds for the subject’s well-being, but only by confronting us, at the very same time, with the limitations and the inadequacy of the Japanese psychiatric system. While Family of Strangers runs the risk of corroborating prejudices, Hirayama’s narrative also has the potential to make spectators think about the socially embedded nature of mental suffering, about the role that the Other plays in creating the subject’s symptoms.  

Notes

Psycho-note 1: In this respect, we should nevertheless mention that for many patients the small psychiatric community, protective due to its clear structured nature, is the only kind of community that they can survive in, the only community they can keep their own subjective equilibrium in.

Psycho-note 2: The way Yuki’s narrative is structured implies that, while her familial context was traumatic, the violent acts she was subjected to were not inscribed in a traumatic manner in her subject.

While this might sound unrealistic for some, scientific literature about trauma does not contradict the possibility of such situation.

Psycho-note 3: We should also note that the psychiatric institution is not the right/adequate environment for the violent Shigemune (Kiyohiko Shibukawa) either. The fact that he is allowed in this kind of environment further insinuates the inadequacy of the Japanese psychiatric system.      

Narra-note 1: The relational nature of Hidemaru Kajiki’s murderous act should also be evident. This act, an act done in blind rage, only took place in response to an imaginary injury inflicted by his adulterous wife.

Narra-note 2: The most important reason for her passage-a-l’acte is, nevertheless, the very fact that the pregnancy confronts her in a most radical way with the real of her suffering. Her suicide attempt is, in this respect, also a response to the sudden confrontation with the real fruit of her trauma.   

Narra-note 3: Without revealing too much, we can reveal that, in the finale of the narrative, Yuki succeeds in using her voice to directly express her suffering to the Other.    

Cine-note 1: One flashback, near the end of the film, forms an exception and is not framed with more a monochrome colour-design.

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