yes, yes, yes (Japan, 2021) [OAFF 2021]

Sometimes, the meaning of something can be found in the destruction of something else. So it goes in writer-director Akihiko Yano’s ensemble drama yes, yes, yes which depicts a family being reborn after enduring the anguish and confusion that comes with facing death.

We watch a few days in the life of a family of four who must wrestle with the devastating news that the mother, Sayuri (Nahoko Kawasumi), is facing the return of a serious illness. Yano drops the audience into these circumstances in media res as the bombshell hits everyone while gathered her hospital room. Sayuri is scared, but she braces up as best she can. The person who seems to take this news the worst is teenage son Takeaki (Kazuma Uesugi) who bristles with nihilistic anger as he lacks the maturity to process what it all means. In contrast, his older sister Juri (Minami Inoue) knows enough to put on a brave face but her mind is also elsewhere as she faces her own lonely struggle on her way to single-motherhood, something which has split her parents. Meanwhile, their father, Masaaki (Kazunari Uryu), has adopted a false mask as he desperately tries to play the patriarch to hide his own fear and sadness. Just when when they should all be pulling together, each person retreats into themselves and their family begins to fall apart.

Yano has Takeaki’s character arc and his earnest narration serve as a sort of structure to the story, but the heart of the film is the anticipatory grief over Sayuri’s death which acts like a dynamo causing everyone to really reckon with the meaning of their existences. Drama is stoked in how this places these four characters in painful confrontations that force them to acknowledge and accept each other and their individual problems. At no point is the manipulative in trying to achieve this arc as the characters behave in a realistic way, the setting is a typical slice of Japanese suburbia, and the general tone film is restrained. Since the events and dialogue are kept narrow and totally in relation to their dilemmas, the shifting relationship dynamics in this group come to the fore, quite purely, through some phenomenal acting.

From the first moments, the cast feels like a real family that has a history together. Each person has a naturalistic physicality and performance ability ranging from deliberately stilted, to indicate stifled emotion, to open and expressive acts which show trust and familial connections. Along the way, the performers skilfully show how their characters retreat into their shells through violent rejection or suppressed anger. How their inability to touch and talk to each other causes further pain is very noticeable and believable so the film works in conveying the power of hugging a loved one. Although the warmth of another human body may be rejected at first, it comes to be part of an act of salvation for the family. The climax should wrench a few sobs and plenty of tears as the sight of people such pain finally starting to heal shows that they are not alone even when faced with something as crushing as death.

Also serving as cinematographer, Yano wisely chooses to shoot things in a stark black-and-white style that prevents any distractions from the performances. This style choice also has another effect as it smothers the glorious summer days that the drama takes place in, draining the image of life and color in a way that reflects the way death has come for the mother. Framing is always perfect. Frequent use of master shots captures the broader physicality of the performances while close-ups convey subtle emotional shifts. There is also room for poetic images via inserts of kites in the sky and bursting fireworks. These have a dreamlike quality that also double as metaphors for such emotions as anger and confusion while also illustrating the transience of life.

This is a purposefully simple and powerfully directed film. Yano’s pared down script and restrained aesthetic ensures that the focus is totally on the cast, resulting in a tumultuous examination of the human condition with tour de force performances.

yes, yes, yes was shown at the Osaka Asian Film Festival on March 8 and 11.