Death of a Japanese Salesman
Also known as: Ending Note
Medium: film
Year: 2011
Writer/director: Mami Sunada
Keywords: documentary
Country: Japan
Language: Japanese
Format: 90 minutes
Url: http://www.imdb.com/title/tt1941516/
Website category: Japanese
Review date: 27 July 2014
It's a documentary that won prizes at international film festivals, was a Japanese box office success and was called one of the ten best films of the year by The Japan Times. It's about a father and grandfather, Tomoaki Sunada, preparing for his death from cancer.
It's a bit boring and it feels longer than it is, but I'm glad I saw it.
Good news: it's not gruelling. It's not grief porn and everyone's being matter-of-fact about at all. Of course emotion is inherent in the nature of what's happening and there will probably be individual scenes that particularly hit home for you, but Mr Sunada's attitude towards his impending death is entirely practical. He's putting his affairs in order. He's got a "to do" list. This keeps him busy. He's converting to Christianity, for instance, because they'll give him a cheaper funeral than the Buddhists. (It wouldn't have occurred to me to change my religion just to save my family a bit of money, but Mr Sunada tells the priest up front that he's not planning on getting into it deeply.)
Apart from that, Mr Sunada's doing the things you'd expect. He spends time with his (cute) grandchildren, who live in America because of their father's work. He visits doctors. He votes in the election, because he has opinions on the current politicians. He spends time with his wife, which is a bigger deal than you'd think because he's been a traditional Japanese salaryman who hardly saw his family for most of his working life and as a result has a slightly complicated relationship with Mrs Sunada. It's sad, although nowhere near as bad as many Japanese marriages. The good news though is that they're rediscovering each other now that his time's running out.
He's also writing a death manual, which he calls "Ending Note". That gives this film its Japanese title, although its English one is "Death of a Japanese Salesman".
It's a good film. It's an intimate, unblinking portrait of a real man facing oblivion. He loves his grandchildren. He'd set himself little goals he'd wanted to reach. I called it boring because it's exactly what you think it's going to be (except for Mrs Sunada and her developing feelings) and it takes ninety minutes to cover what feels like thirty minutes of material. I was clock-watching. However it's honest, painstaking and takes you right inside this Japanese family and what they're going through.
What's most unique about it is its director. She's Mr Sunada's daughter. She's been filming her family regularly since she was fifteen years old (eh?) and she hadn't originally been planning to turn her footage into this movie. She was just shooting their lives as usual. She only decided to edit together this portrait of his life three months after he died and even then she'd had no intention of giving it a cinema release. She works as an assistant to Hirokazu Koreeda and it's him who said "this looks like a movie" when she showed it to him. (If you've seen Koreeda films like After Life and Nobody Knows, you'll now be saying "aaah" and nodding sagely in recognition of this film's tone: slow, detailed, understated and personal.)
In other words, the film has Mr Sunada's daughter's voice. That's true literally with the voice-over, which is the director reading her father's words. This has a odd and deliberately artificial effect, since she's not trying to disguise her female voice, but I really like it. It's personal, from both of them. She'd been going to use a professional actor, but I'm glad she didn't. There's no layer of artifice between us and the truth of what we're seeing... well, apart from music and editing, obviously.
It's exactly what it looks like. It's a family album, effectively. It has 1970s cinema footage and old photos of Mr Sunada's wife and mother when they were young (and surprisingly beautiful). It has an odd bit at the beginning where the director is cutting together two bits of film where her father's just sitting in a car giving directions... but the footage was taken months apart and the older version of her father has lost so much weight that he's almost unrecognisable as the same man. It's a slightly disconcerting montage, but it:
(a) helps the audience understand that these different Mr Sunadas are indeed the same person,
(b) underlines what's unchanged, since he's still the same man saying the same things, and
(c) is a serendipitous juxtaposition that must have struck the director in all kinds of ways when she stumbled across it during editing, so she put it in the film.
It's a film that says as much about its director as its subject, who'd given up on hoping that she might get married and at one point tells her to stop filming and then isn't surprised when she secretly disobeys him. If you'd shot all this footage of your dying father, would you edit it into a movie and release it into cinemas? Tomoko wouldn't. Me, I don't know. I would if I'd had a chance to discuss it with him beforehand, but that's different.
It's not entertaining. It's not even on the same planet as "entertaining". It's slow. However it's a deeply personal statement and its integrity is impregnable. I think I admire it.