What Can You Do About It? (Japan, 2019) [JAPAN CUTS 2020]

Twenty years separate filmmaker Yoshifumi Tsubota and his father’s cousin Makoto Ohara, but the former finds a kindred spirit in the latter following his diagnosis of ADHD. Makoto-san has pervasive developmental disorder (PDD), which lies on the autism spectrum, but has been leading a fairly independent life into his sixties with the help of social services, even after the passing of his mother with whom he had lived and who had been his primary guardian. Tsubota decides to hang out with Makoto-san and film his everyday experiences to get to know his cousin and his way of seeing the world, despite or because of his PDD, and also get to know himself in the process; over time, he also enlists the help of his friend and fellow filmmaker Ikeda-san with the filming. Over the course of several years, Tsubota accompanies Makoto-san in his home and to different places and becomes in a way one of his caretakers (aside from his sister).

The film’s title nods to the rather fatalistic Japanese expression (だってしょうがないじゃない, also translated as “it cannot be helped”) oft repeated by Makoto-san and Tsubota about their respective conditions, how they impact their modes of living and relationships, and not being able to do much about them, particularly for Makoto-san as he ages and the prospect of being moved to an institution looms. But this title is ultimately misleading with regards to the film’s tone and focus. For the film itself presents a frank, highly endearing, and even celebratory, rebuttal to the aforementioned expression’s resigned attitude as the two men develop an affectionate friendship and become each other’s extended family, sounding board, and confidant all at once.

Put another way, Tsubota becomes an additional, albeit more personally invested and closely engaged, “listening volunteer” for Makoto-san. “Listening volunteers” are those who visit the homes of people with PDD or a disability and spend time with them on a regular basis, apart from a cleaning and budget staff provided by social services. Certainly, Tsubota is a co-subject in the film; it even begins with a shot of himself on a train en route to meet his distant cousin. He also inserts footage of himself and eventually shares his own story of his ADHD diagnosis, the medication that he takes for it, and its impact on his marriage nearly an hour into the film. His voiceover narration throughout the film is also another form of inserting himself as a subject. But he only ever remains a secondary one, if based purely on the footage. He maintains the role of filmmaker and friend instead in order to give the majority of the film’s runtime to Makoto-san and learning about his perspectives on things. On this point, Tsubota very much fulfills the role of a “listening volunteer” in the way he generates conversations with him on various issues to express himself freely. The film’s celebratory nature is indeed most evident in the ease and rapport that the two men have with each other, be it at home or walking around the neighbourhood, like brothers almost, and seeing Makoto-san’s affection develop for Tsubota. And like brothers, they do a lot of activities together throughout the film, such as going to Shinkansen Land or a baseball game; attending a marathon and matsuri; and going to karaoke for the first time. Tsubota also sets up a visit between his father and Makoto-san, a sequence that has an idyllic charm all to itself. Makoto-san’s ease with Tsubota is such that they even become “partners in crime” when the former calls for help in buying a pair of sneakers without letting his sister find out about it.

An interesting element that develops in the course of the film in relation to Makoto-san is the visual motif of chopping down the cherry trees in his yard. The first time that one sees the cutting of the trees has a practical reason in that it has to happen, with Makoto-san and Tsubota standing at attention to monitor the event. The second and third instances account for the difficulty of cutting up the lower, thicker portions of the trees. But subsequent cuts to the ornery tree stumps during the last third of the film acquire an association with Makoto-san since they coincide a bit with the issue of literally uprooting him from the house where he has been living all of his life and placing him in an institution because of his condition and aging. Makoto-san is all too aware of this issue yet accepting because “What can you do about it?” This issue, through the visual motif of the chopping of the cherry trees, hints at a sense of melancholy.

But, again, overriding this melancholy is a sense of warmth formed between the two men. The most honest, respectful observational moments are those of Tsubota simply filming Makoto-san going about his routines at home: brushing his teeth, folding the laundry, taking a bath, and arranging his belongings. These moments wonderfully show Makoto-san as he is as well as Tsubota’s own affection for him; hence the film’s conclusion with one such sequence.

What Can You Do About It? is streaming as part of JAPAN CUTS: Festival of New Japanese Film from July 17-30.