A Banana? At This Time of Night? (Japan, 2018) [Japan Foundation Film Tour 2020]

A Banana? At This Time of Night? is adapted from the eponymous debut non-fiction book by acclaimed author Watanabe Kazufumi whose work primarily focuses on physical disabilities and social welfare issues prevalent in Japan. Set in Hokkaido of 1994, the story chronicles a period in the life of Shikano Yasuaki (Yo Oizumi) when he decides to live ‘independent’ of his family and hospitals despite his affliction with Muscular Dystrophy, relying on an ever-changing group of volunteers.

Tetsu Maeda’s film begins cacophonously as a thirties-something Shikano is introduced ordering (he is able to move only his facial muscles, and is otherwise wheelchair bound) Takako (Makiko Watanabe), his permanent helper with meek Daisuke (surprisingly, Masato Hagiwara, who played the hypnotist murderer in Kiyoshi Kurosawa’s 1997 feature Cure) and a group of girls (university students who volunteer to help the disabled) attending to him. He continuously reprimands them as they go about cleaning his compact apartment, bathing him and getting him ready for the day. A young doctoral student Hisashi (Haruma Miura) enters with groceries, only to be chided he has got the wrong kind of burger. Also, Misaki (Mitsuki Takahata) arrives, apparently looking for Hisashi, her boyfriend, but walking into a situation she is unprepared for. The proceedings get uncomfortable to watch as Shikano seems abusive toward all and they disturbingly subservient to him.

Shikano often asks Hisashi to stay with him beyond his voluntary hours and spineless Hisashi toils for him without complaint. Hisashi coerces Misaki as well to volunteer as Shikano has taken a liking to her. Just when the shenanigans get too grating, Misaki bursts into anger asking the same question burning in the viewer’s mind – what right does Shikano have to abuse his volunteers such, who spend their precious time looking after him. But this chance for self- reflection is lost on him. As tensions escalate, unexpectedly Misaki’s and Hisashi’s own motivations to work for Shikano slowly reveal their own weakness and escapist tendencies.

Kazufumi’s book is a complex human drama, delving deep inside the psyches of people with disabilities and their caregivers based on interviews and personal engagement with Shikano and the vast number of volunteers who helped him. Detailing the often tense relationship between the domineering Shikano and the young volunteers who look after him, the book unflinchingly examines both the light and dark aspects of caring for the disabled (from author’s interview here). The film flattens this reading, rendering Shikano, Takako and more notably Hisashi, one-note. Weakened by a vague characterisation, Hisashi’s self-doubt, his gift or lack thereof of becoming a doctor are never clearly explored. When he ends up just as the film hints at, it is an unearned resolution. Misaki has a better turn character wise. As one avoiding to face her failures, living a life of lies, Shikano in his typical blunt self asks her to start over and make her dreams a reality. Mitsuki’s well calibrated responses to her character’s struggles makes Misaki more real than the other characters. Kazufumi writes volunteers had different reasons for helping Shikano, but they seemed to share a sense of something missing from their lives. He furthers that Shikano had an immense impact on them, comforting and exhorting the volunteers to live more positively. One returned to medical school to become a doctor (Haruma’s character could be taken from this) and others pursued careers in welfare, healthcare, or education (like Mitsuki’s character). This complex symbiotic relationship doesn’t translate fluently from book to film.

Shikano’s own understanding of leading an independent life feels like a lie. At disability symposiums, he espouses a society where disabled can lead normal lives at home independent of family and hospitals. Yet he doesn’t recognise how heavily reliant he is on his unpaid helpers to provide for his every need, night and day. During an evening by himself, he falls over and gets admitted to hospital. He does gain some insight that he is indebted to his volunteers, yet this seems soft acknowledgement rather than what should have been a change in his principles and what he advocates. Kazufumi interprets Shikano’s idea of an ‘independent’ lifestyle simply being free to decide how he lived his life and found it perfectly consistent to solicit the aid of others if that was required to achieve his goal. Shikano’s thinking gave him determination to seek volunteers and ask help which meant going against the cultural grain as in Japan there is a deep-seated aversion to inconveniencing others, Kazufumi adds.

The 1990s was a time before the advent of in-home disability care and other welfare service support systems in Japan. The film, focusing on Shikano’s shenanigans, loses sight of meaningfully portraying the larger prevalent picture and that Shikano’s decision to rely on unpaid university students as helpers was a very radical and risky way of living. Overtly melodramatic familial flashbacks, background musical cues aimed at eliciting laughs misfire, undermining the complexities and significance of its source material, making the film an unsatisfying viewing experience.

A Banana? At This Time of Night? is part of the Japan Foundation Film Touring Programme 2020, which is showing at selected UK venues from January 31 to March 29.