While many Japanese directors succeed in making big waves at international film festivals, certain directors, who have talent in spades, struggle to do so. One such director is Daishi Matsunaga. Today, we explore one of his narratives, which was based on an excerpt from manga writer Osamu Tezuka’s diary during his final days.
Ever since he stopped painting, Hiroshi Sonoda (Yojiro Noda) has been working part-time at an cleaning office. One day, while washing windows, he meets his ex-girlfriend and artist Satsuki Ozaki (Saya Ichikawa). Her invitation to her exhibition instigates a nostalgic longing to their shared past.
Some time later, at the hospital,high school student Mai (Hana Sugisaki) catches Hiroshi’s attention by making a scene with an older man. He coerces her into joining his appointment as his sister. There he learns that without treatment for his cancer, he has only 3 months left to live.
Pieta In The Toilet is an emotionally impactful experience that explores the fact that the subjective feeling of being alive depends on the ability to infuse meaning infuse in one’s comportment and speech. Feeling alive is, in this sense, not so much about the reality of one’s palpating heart, but of the meaning that directs one’s acts and signifiers.
This important idea is powerfully explored in Hiroshi’s trajectory. While Hiroshi has a body with warm blood gushing, he does not feel alive as subject. This position of being subjectively death is, first, introduced by the equivalence he introduces between window-washer with insects.
Yet, with his imaginary comparison, Hiroshi does not only indicate his own lingering depressed state of being – I’m merely a bug (waiting to be squashed) in the eye of societal Other, but also reveals his disdain for his current part-time job. By highlighting Hiroshi depressive undercurrent, the spectator can easily sense that his wish to meet Satsuki Ozaki is not driven by a desire to break his subjective standstill , but by a desire to escape his present by regaining his lost past (Narra-note 1). This wish as well as his refusal illustrate that while he gave up painting, he is actually unable to give up his dream to become a painter. It is this inability that underpins the fixation of his subjectivity. He hangs forlorn between a present that he cannot accept (i.e. his reality as window-washer) and a present that is radically lost (i.e. a present as painter). His refusal to accept a full-time position should, in this sense, be read as a defence to keep the confrontation with his failure as painter at bay and avoid becoming devoured by his fatalistic and self-harming fantasies.
The unexpected diagnosis of his advanced stomach cancer causes his lingering depressive mood to fully imprison him. An existential crisis blossoms. The confrontation with a looming death does not only efface the signifiers and signified that kept him functioning in society – a big meaningless nothingness gapes in front of his eyes, but also complicates the subjective conflict that renders him immobile. His looming death confronts him with the radical unhappiness that marks his current societal position, but also washes away any possibility to escape this unhappiness and realize his slumbering dream to be a painter (Narra-note 2).
At first, Hiroshi tries (but fails) to escape the suffocating presence of death and the existential struggle that poisons his consciousness (e.g. he runs away from the hospital, tries to go back to work, he wanders in the middle of the night throughout Shinjuku to clean windows). Yet, his ongoing treatment makes any kind of escape from the deadly illness that infests his body impossible – this continued confrontation invites him to accept the inevitable and commence a process of mourning. But, can Hiroshi escape the paralysing impact of his looming death? Can a subjective shift happen that can allow him to find a surge of eros to break the suffocating meaningless of his current life, attain some subjective meaning within relationships with others some, and ensure that his existence was not merely a meaningless affair?
Through the character of the bad-mouthed Mai, Matsunaga explores how the social or familial field one is subject to can complicate the ability to give expression to one’s subject and to find meaning in one’s life. It does not take long for the spectator to realize that Mai’s strange behaviour – e.g. the ease by which she decides to commit suicide, the subjective emptiness of her signifiers, the way she tries to exploit the other for financial gain, … etc. – is function of her familial situation.
Mai’s mother has no eye for her daughter as subject. Mai is merely utilized as an object, an object to be ordered around and submissively do all the chores (e.g. making dinner, putting grandmother in a bath, …etc.). The motherly signifier is, in other words, only wielded to complain and to demand, never to invite her daughter to reveal some aspect of her subjectivity. The spectator easily feels that Mai replicates the objectivizing dynamic that structures her relation with her mother in her interactions with others.
Yet, despite the absence of her subjectivity in her speech and her utilitarian use of the other, Mai does wish to have a normal high-school life and have the romantic experiences that mark the stage of adolescence. Her desire to cut out the motherly burden, to escape the objectification by her mother, is elegantly highlighted by her releasing fishes in the school’s pool. Maybe her interactions with Hiroshi, the object that does not always lets itself be manipulated, might generate the necessary frustration to call her subjective voice forth.
The composition of Pieta In The Toilet stands out due to its effective use of static shots (Cine-note 1). Whether or not it was intended, the simple concatenations of static shots do echo the static nature of Hiroshi’s subject. His subjective standstill is also highlighted – and this is evidently intentional – by Matsunaga’s choice of imagery. With his imagery, he elegantly reveals the very subjective emptiness that marks Hiroshi’s daily routine and underlines that rather than him living his life, his life is living him.
Both elements – i.e. his reliance on static shots and his thoughtful choice of imagery– are instrumental in allowing Yojiro Noda, who portrays Hiroshi, to evoke the inner conflict and the meaninglessness that envelopes him with his facial expressions, his body language, and his speech (or lack thereof) (Acting-note 1). Matsunaga, moreover, decorates the staging of Hiroshi’s subjective emptiness with a play with sounds and silences. Both elements – Noda’s performance as well as the auditive decorations – are important in making the impact of this diagnosis truly impactful for the spectator.
The narrative is also economically decorated by gentle classical musical accompaniment. The beauty of these musical pieces resides in the fact that the music does not dictate which emotions the spectator should feel but invites him/her to give expression to the emotions that were already lingering within due to the strong performances of the two leads.
With Pieta In The Toilet, Matsunaga delivers a beautiful and highly emotional experience. His compositional simplicity, by giving the floor to the two leads to breathe life into their singular subjective conflicts, allows his exploration of what it means to feel alive and the importance of finding one’s subjective voice to captivate the spectator and touch the core of his being. Matsunaga’s film will, in short, leave no one unaffected.
Narra-note 1: The second encounter between Satsuki and Hiroshi does not go well, because she unwittingly confronts him with the subjective failure that he cannot fully accept. Her success as painter confronts him with what he does not have but also with what he still desires.
Narra-note 2: His search for enjoyment in clubbing and girls after the diagnosis is merely an attempt to fill up the empty space of meaningless that violently gnaws at his subject. His masturbation has the same function – a shot of enjoyment to temporally erase the gaping nothingness of his existence.
Cine-note 1: Matsunaga’s movie is not without some gentle dynamism. Shaky framing is sparingly applied, but successfully strengthens the conflictual nature and the emotional impact of certain encounters.
Acting-note 1: Hana Sugisaki also delivers an impressive performance. Her performance plays an important role in making Pieta In The Toilet such an impressive experience.