Lying to Mom (Japan, 2018) [NYAFF 2019]

Katsumi Nojiri has had a long career working as an assistant director on a diverse array of films such as the comedies Seto and Utsumi (2016) and Thermae Romae II (2014) as well as dictionary drama The Great Passage (2013). For his directorial debut he harnesses a touch of comedy to craft a heartfelt drama that is sadly inspired by the death of his own brother. In Lying to Mom, he unpacks all of the difficulties surrounding suicide felt by one suburban family and captures some of the difficult dynamics that play in addressing sensitive topics.

The suburban family at the heart of the story are the Suzuki clan, which consists of father Sachio (Ittoku Kishibe), mother Yuko (Hideko Hara), son Koichi (Ryo Kase) and daughter Fumi (Mai Kiryu). They seem normal with Sachio being a bit of a hands-off patriarch, Yuko running the household as a devoted mother and Fumi being a university student but Koichi is a hikikomori and, apart from brief spells in odd jobs, has struggled to step outside of his room after graduating from university. One day, whatever is weighing him down finally becomes too much to bear and he hangs himself in his room.

The film opens with this shocking act and then the camera watches Yuko who goes to check on him, panics, tries to save him and gets into an accident which results in her entering a coma which last for nearly 50 days. When she awakens in hospital she has lost her memory but is surrounded by everyone from her immediate family including her laid-back younger brother Hiroshi (Nao Omori) who works for a company which has just started importing shrimp from Argentina. On doctor’s orders they have to keep Yuko calm, so when she naturally asks where Koichi is, there is an awkward silence and Fumi lies to her in order to preserve her mental state. That lie is pretty big: Koichi stopped being a hikikomori because of her accident and now works in Argentina. How does one keep up that lie?

The set-up is slightly akin to the German comedy Good Bye, Lenin! (2003) and the audaciousness of the lie is so outrageous as to make the film sound like a black comedy. There is a comedic tone maintained throughout the early scenes of characters concocting all manner of silly stories and a stream of postcards from Argentina to keep the lie real but this initial humour proves to be a bit misleading because there is a tragedy underpinning everything and as the film’s story progresses it sheds the awkward laughter for a mood of creeping tension generated by whether someone will reveal the truth to Yuko and it also brings up the mystery as to why Koichi committed suicide.

As performed by Kase, the portrayal of Koichi’s mental anguish is pretty multi-layered considering his short screen time and he gives his co-stars and the film ample room to show a realistic range of reactions from his family as they try to coax him out of his mental isolation. Kishibe captures the hapless and stoic aspects of Sachio while Hara, who essays a mother’s unfaltering love for her children, draws the most sympathy through the hopeful looks and joy she gives over every lie misleading her into thinking her son is alive and living his best life because of her accident but also reveals an inner strength that is needed to pull the family together. Kiryu provides a lot of the emotional push for the film as she reveals how her character is being slowly eaten away by guilt over the lies she tells and her regret over her own relationship with her brother. Her inability to speak about her own anguish and the evident trauma over the death creates a mental conflict that gives the film direction and allows her to have a big emotional blow up which almost draws things together.

The reasons behind Koichi’s ending his own life are initially promised as the emotional effects of living with him, a hikikomori, are unpacked with fragmentary flashbacks and drip-feed information from various family members. This gradually fills in the backstory to a certain extent and shows some of the pressures and social stigma of mental health issues. The film also offers up a subplot involving a search for a soapland worker, which could have magically wrapped things up, but instead goes nowhere. Ultimately we are left with an unsatisfying absence of information and emotional resolutions that death often brings.

This is an assured debut from Nojiri although the script could have benefited from some revisions because the film doesn’t quite know how to finish. Towards the end there are multiple scenes that feel like natural conclusions but the narrative keeps going until things fizzle out. Death is like that, however. People regard it as such a climactic thing but for those left behind, things carry on, uncertainly and falteringly at first, but they do carry on. Stay for the credits for a poignant final shot of the Suzuki family at the very end.

Lying to Mom is showing at the New York Asian Film Festival 2019 on July 10.