Pieta in the Toilet, the first fictional feature by acclaimed documentary filmmaker Matsunaga Daishi, is a two-hour drama about a young man who's dying of cancer.
But fortunately, this film proves to not be nearly as depressing as that description makes it sound. The appropriately serious (and often deeply moving) scenes in which several characters confront impending death - either their own or that of their loved ones - are counterbalanced and leavened by scenes that are richly humorous. This, along with the artistic milieu that deeply informs the film in both its subject matter and visual texture, lends Pieta in the Toilet an ultimately uplifting quality despite its sadness.
Hiroshi (Noda Yojiro) is introduced to us as a window washer at his job. One day, he faints while at work, and consults with a doctor. No time is wasted informing Hiroshi (and us) about the cause: he is suffering from the advanced stages of stomach cancer, and must begin chemotherapy and other treatments as soon as possible in order to have any chance of beating it.
We also learn that Hiroshi is, or was, more than merely a humble window washer. He was a painter with quite a bit of promise who, seemingly from lack of confidence in his talents, eventually abandoned the pursuit. However, he still attends art classes to keep some kind of connection to his old life.
Another connection to Hiroshi's old life arrives in the form of his ex-girlfriend Satsuki (Ishikawa Saya), whom he happens to meet by chance on the job one day. Satsuki is also an artist, but unlike Hiroshi, she was able to become a success, and in fact is exhibiting a one-woman show at a local gallery. A brief flashback indicates the nature of their relationship: in what is most likely a post-coitus scene, Hiroshi selfishly insists on sketching Satsuki in bed despite her objections.
Hiroshi later asks Satsuki for a favor: because he's not yet ready to tell his parents that he's sick, he asks Satsuki to pose as his sister at the doctor's office, since he's required to be accompanied by a family member. Satsuki agrees, and while waiting for the doctor, she tells him that he was the better artist, and she was probably more successful at it only because she was more persistent. But when Hiroshi angers her by his lack of enthusiasm about her art, she leaves the office.
It's then that Hiroshi encounters Mai (Sugisaki Hana), a high school girl who's berating an older man with her for tearing her school uniform. Hiroshi steps in and offers to pay for a new uniform if she'll pose as his sister. Although she's initially mistrustful, she agrees. Thereafter begins an unlikely friendship between the two, as Mai pops up frequently as Hiroshi deals with his progressively worsening condition. Mai is a spunky, pugnacious girl, made that way by her bad home life, which we are privy to in scenes which alternate with Hiroshi's. She's forced to essentially be the head of her household, cooking for her constantly working mother and caring for her senile grandmother; no father seems to be in the picture. Mai sometimes gets rather flirtatious in her interactions with Hiroshi, while cheekily reminding him that she's underage. This, along with her introductory encounter with the older man, may be a hint at how Mai earns her spending money.
As for Hiroshi, his cancer lands him an extended stay in the hospital's cancer ward, where he meets other characters whose stories dovetail with his. There's Hiroshi's roommate Yokota (Lily Franky), the resident pervert, who takes every opportunity to snap pictures of the nurses with his ever-present camera, keeps a stash of porn pics close by, and makes sure to sneak an upskirt photo of Mai when she comes to visit. There's also Takuto (Sawada Riku), a cancer-stricken young boy, and his mother (Miyazawa Rie), who both befriend Hiroshi. But the one who will have the greatest impact on Hiroshi's shortened life is Mai, who takes him on occasional outings. They're drawn to each other by their shared feelings of isolation from others, Hiroshi because of his sickness, Mai because of an awful home life that she feels trapped in.
Matsunaga's most notable previous work is his 2010 documentary Pyuupiru 2001-2008, about the titular gender-bending visual artist, and every frame of Pieta in the Toilet speaks to his intimate knowledge of the visual arts milieu. The story was inspired by the experiences of another artist, namely the diaries of pioneering manga artist Tezuka Osamu, who died in 1989 of stomach cancer. Not only that, Lily Franky - who delivers such a wonderful performance as a sex-obsessed patient - besides being an in-demand actor, is also an illustrator. This convergence of the inspiration and influence of art and artists - both living and dead - are largely what contributes to this film's great success, and makes it far less dour and downbeat than it could have been. And appropriately for a film about the visual arts, Pieta in the Toilet has lyrical cinematography by Ikeuchi Yoshihiro (who also shot Linda Linda Linda and Fuku-chan of FukuFuku Flats), who provides some strikingly beautiful imagery.
Another crucial asset is the fine performances. Noda Yojiro, a musician from the popular band RADWIMPS, is quite credible in his first film role, effectively conveying the confusion and anger of a young man suddenly forced to directly confront his own mortality. However, the real standouts exist among the actors who surround him. I've already mentioned Lily Franky, who provides much of the humor that enhances the piece. Sugisaki Hana, another new actor in her first lead role, is stunning as the feisty schoolgirl whose tough exterior masks a frightened, vulnerable soul. Miyazawa Rie leaves a great impression in her brief but memorable role as the mother, and is the subject of one of the film's most moving scenes.
Pieta in the Toilet culminates with an absolutely breathtaking image, one which gives a literal meaning to the film's title. The final passages in the film which follow this scene leave us with some hope amid the sickness and death. These scenes impart the message that if we are able to leave a mark on the lives of others, then in a sense, we don't really die.
Pieta in the Toilet screens on July 14, 9pm at Japan Society. For more information, visit Japan Society's website.