The House Where the Mermaid Sleeps (Japan, 2018) [Japan Foundation Film Tour 2020]

“No parent should have to bury their child,” goes an old saying, although sometimes, refusing to do so can be infinitely worse. Yukihiko Tsutsumi’s drama The House Where the Mermaid Sleeps, tackles head on the issue of filial departure, presenting a nearly impossible conundrum. What is the right thing to do when the impending death of a child knocks on the door? It is a well-acted, slow paced drama that poses a lot of interesting questions to the audience, even if it does not necessarily offer much in the way of answers.

Kazumasa Harima (Hidetoshi Nishijima) and Kaoruko Harima (Ryoko Shinohara) are in the throes of a divorce when a swimming pool accident renders their daughter, Mizuho (Kurumi Inagaki), with irreparable brain damage. While her brain is dead, Mizuho’s heart continues to function, and by Japanese law the hospital requires the parents’ consent before they can declare her officially brain dead. This is too difficult a decision for Kaoruko, especially since the doctors cannot predict the child’s fate with absolute medical certainty. As such, they decide to keep Mizuho alive for as long as possible. With the help of Kazumasa’s advanced medical technology company, the family manages to not only keep Mizuho’s heart functioning, but also stimulate her muscles with electrodes. One of the company’s researchers, Yuya Hoshino (Kentaro Sakaguchi), devotes his time into perfecting the technology to better suit the needs of the young girl. But despite all this, there’s never an indication that Mizuho’s brain will resume functioning.

With the passing months, the rest of the family begins to grow skeptical of their decisions, as the burden of care and social embarrassment drives a wedge between them. Tensions escalate, and a single moral question threads throughout the film: are they doing the right thing by keeping Mizuho in a perpetual vegetative state? Is she anything more than a corpse on electrodes? Kaoruko begins to feel isolated as she’s the only one to still believe in Mizuho’s future, while the rest argue for the contrary.

The House Where the Mermaid Sleeps puts a fresh spin on a very old story. Society at large seems to have come to a decision regarding people in a vegetative state. Almost always, it is better to pull the plug. But when considering the possibilities of modern technology, the decision becomes all the more complicated. Technology brings new hope, but also new despair when one has to come to terms with its limitations. The film tackles this subject matter in a novel and unpreceded way, posing a heart-wrenching moral question that can feed into our collective obsessions. The actors are superb in representing each of their characters’ point of view, keeping the interest afloat in a very slow paced drama.

However, whereas the film holds high ambitions, it appears uninterested in allowing them to evolve all the way through. Aside from pace issues and one-too-many slow-motion shots, which are admittedly only minor annoyances, the film goes rather easy on its characters and chooses not to expose them to the most serious repercussions of their actions. Any doubt regarding Mizuho’s status (alive or dead) is disposed of quickly after a rather artificially escalated argument. So is Karuoko’s long-drawn obsession, resolved by a single dream after which she goes from denial to acceptance in a heartbeat. The ending is emotional and sad, just like most of the film, but flattens the moral ambiguity that the film begins with, offering the characters the easy way out.

The House Where the Mermaid Sleeps is not perfect, but it starts a conversation that will undoubtedly appear again in cinema, politics, and our lives in general. It’s a well-executed, well-acted family drama that, despite a rocky ending, will give everyone something to think about.

The House Where the Mermaid Sleeps is part of the Japan Foundation Film Touring Programme 2020, which is showing at selected UK venues from January 31 to March 29.