It's a highly respected stage play adaptation that won lots of awards. It's good, but I think it's also a failure.
The original play I have no problem with and I'd be interested in seeing it live. (It actually came to London in 2007.) It's by Inoue Hisashi, an award-winning novelist-playwright who's written dozens of plays. It's a two-hander, set in Hiroshima a few years after the nuclear bomb. There's a daughter, Mitsue, and her father, Takezo. Mitsue has become a bit of a mouse and was emotionally scarred by her experiences, while Takezo is a much more cheerful, vigorous character who doesn't appear to have any issues with the fact that he's dead. He's even helpful around the house. He can't eat or drink, but he can do a bit of cleaning and cooking.
There's a young man who seems fond of Mitsue, but she's reluctant to get close to him. Mitsue and Takezo discuss all kinds of things over the course of the play, but of course the heart of it is Mitsue's marriage prospects, future happiness and survivor guilt.
In obvious ways, the film is laudably faithful to the play. The dialogue is exactly the same, pretty much. Their conversations still all take place in Mitsue's house. The film's roots are obvious enough that I asked Tomoko, "Is this based on a stage play?" within about fifteen minutes.
Some critics of this film assert that it's too much like the stage play, in fact. They say that it should have done more to take advantage of what one can do in a movie, since otherwise there's no point in adapting it. This argument is bollocks. This was never going to resemble, even remotely, a regular movie. It's a two-handed dialogue piece. Nothing happens. They talk. The script is blatantly stage-play-shaped and trying to distort it into a movie structure would pretty much destroy it. Either adapt the sodding thing or don't. The correct thing to do is to embrace its talkiness and basically do a stage play on the screen. Take a step back from realism. Get in close, get claustrophobic, shove the camera practically up the actors' noses and for God's sake, don't start concentrating on realism.
Several of my problems with the film, in fact, involve exactly that kind of "let's make it more like a movie" change. Firstly, they show us Mitsue's would-be boyfriend. Leave aside the fact that he's non-played by Tadanobu Asano, this is actively detracting. It dilutes the focus. Why do we need to see him? What does it add? It's showing rather than telling, yes, except that it's not because he's a non-character in whom we have no interest and the important thing is how Mitsue feels about him. We don't get that from her blink-and-you'll-miss-them conversations with Asano, but instead from her arguments with her father. (In fairness another actor might perhaps have been able to bring him alive and make us empathise with him as well as Mitsue, but... well, Tadanobu Asano.)
A bigger one, though, is Hiroshima. Kazuo Kuroki filmed this as the third in his "Trilogy works for War Requiem", although he could hardly have been said to be hurrying as it was only his fourth film in thirty years. Hiroshima is a huge part of this story, of course. It's what turned Mitsue into what she is. She's a librarian and thus forbidden to keep records or artefacts of the nuclear bombing, by order of the American MacArthur administration, but Asano's character is investigating what happened and collecting melted tiles, blasted statues, etc. Everything in this story is a direct result of Little Boy falling on 9 August 1945... but I don't think it's a story about the nuclear bomb, the hundreds of thousands who died or about Hiroshima as a whole. It's about Mitsue and Takezo. It's about those two people, specifically, and about personal, unique pain rather than the pain of a nation or a city.
Kuroki though hits us over the head with Hiroshima. We see contemporary footage. We visit the Genbaku Dome, including a final shot in which two fake-looking flowers are shown to be growing there. (Spot the symbolism!) This is lazy and knee-jerk, I think. Yes, what happened at Hiroshima and Nagasaki was a horror unique in world history, but it does the playwright a disservice to pull focus away from Mitsue and Takezo. Pushing Hiroshima in the audience's face is a distraction. It forces one to wonder about the meaning of these very heavy references and to think about what Kuroki and Hisashi might be saying with them... but, on that level, they're not actually saying anything.
As I said, it should be about Mitsue and Takezo. Kuroki's film makes me want to do a fan edit, cutting out the faff and just focusing on them, although I'd probably be better off watching a recording of a stage performance Tomoko found on Japanese YouTube.
This film might also have more impact if you're Japanese. Mitsue has survivor guilt. Of course there's nothing culture-specific about the concept of survivor guilt, but someone in the West is less likely to have first-hand experience of it, or to know anyone who has. In Japan, though, the kind of thing described here is even now all too familiar, right up to the present day. There's nothing abstract or remote about it. Japan will always have earthquakes, when they're not also having typhoons and Fukushima meltdowns. What Mitsue describes happened, word for word, to many in Kobe in 1995, or more recently across the country in 2011. People still live with it today. Quite often they commit suicide as a result. That will be part of why the material didn't hit as hard for me as it did for Tomoko.
That's the text. What about the production?
Yoshio Harada is great as Takezo. It's a huge role and he's grabbing it in both hands, especially his famous speech. (It's the one where he gets a spotlight.) Rie Miyazawa, though, is less great as Mitsue. She won awards for her work in this role, but I'm tempted to call her insipid. She's doing everything that's required and she's certainly worth watching in her emotional set-pieces, but I found her a bit too polite and delicate in her approach to the material. She didn't grab me. Give this role to a truly great actress and she'd annihilate you. Oh, and apparently her Hiroshima accent is iffy too, although if you're not from Hiroshima all you'll be thinking is, "I DON'T UNDERSTAND THIS ACCENT; GIVE ME SUBTITLES."
You'll have also guessed that I'm not wild about Kuroki's direction. I think it's too literal. He keeps the camera too far back and gets us watching the realistic set, not the characters. Mind you, I like some of his touches with the ghost (e.g. the spotlight, the blackness into which he departs).
Incidentally, the Japanese title translates as "If I lived with my father." I like that, especially with the layer of meaning that isn't in the original Japanese, where "to be alive" (ikiru) and "to dwell" (kurasu) are entirely different words and can't be combined as we find in the English "to live". Translator Roger Pulvers, though, instead chose the English-language title of The Face of Jizo, which I regret if only for the fact that I can't stop thinking of it as The Face of Jism.
Overall, is it good? Is it worth your time? Answer: yes, although you might have to buy the Japanese R2 DVD if you want to watch it. (Don't worry, it has English subtitles.) Obviously it's not a laugh-a-minute, but I thought it was actually lighter than you'd expect in some respects (e.g. the Takezo ghost character) and it never occurred to me that he wasn't going to help Mitsue get over her problems eventually. Of course it's obviously a stage play, being basically an hour and a half of two characters talking in a single location, but I quite liked that. Stage plays are good. It's nice to have something that isn't the usual movie narrative shape, which you'll find even in independent art movies. (No protagonist, no antagonist and no story development except in the inner life of Mitsue.) It's still interesting and there's a lot to admire here. It might feel a bit long, perhaps, but it's worthwhile.
"What are you doing alive?"