Genre: Death and Dying (in Dignity) Drama
review in one breath
Director Itami Juzo is well known for tackling rather serious social ills, wrapping them in a narrative populated with interesting characters, and then presenting it back to audiences with hint of humor mixed in. Since his films skillfully deal with mainstream, real-life situations in a slightly comedic fashion, which simultaneously highlights the problem while also defusing it, Japanese audiences find within them not only entertainment, but also a means to better understand and deal with the social issues observed. His films became widely popular and many have been available in subtitled version throughout the West for many years.
For example, in 1984 he directed Ososhiki (Funeral) which explored a family's sudden and significant (financial and social) responsibility in burying an elderly loved one. In 1985, his Tampopo (Dandelion) explored the difficult and rewards of entrepreneurship, in this case of a ramen noodle shop. He then directed Marusa no Onna (A Taxing Woman) (1987) and Marusa no Onna 2 (1988), both of which explored in fascinating detail the world of tax fraud and Japanese tax law.
Then, in 1992, Itami directed the widely popular Minbo no Onna (The Gentle Art of Japanese Extortion) which completely demystified the coercive and extortionist tactics currently employed by the Yakuza. This film was so accurate and hit so close to home that shortly after its release Itami was the victim of a life-threatening knife attack orchestrated by the Japanese Yakuza. (!!) While sitting in his hospital bed recovering from serious wounds, Itami came up with the idea for Daibyonin, the film currently under review.
The title Daibyonin means Gravely Ill Person (or more literally [The] Person with a Great Illness). The story follows the very affluent and aging director Buhei Mikai (Rentaro Mikuni) who is currently filming a movie starring himself in the role of a great conductor who is battling cancer yet perseveres toward the final concert they have all prepared for. When off the set, Buhei lives a life of decadence, greeted and pampered by fans and inferiors, drinking massive amounts of whiskey, and ingesting handfuls of viagra to voraciously get it on with his mistress. Once home, however, he is faced with his very discontent wife Mari, played by Miyamoto Nobuko (who in real life is Itami's wife. Miyamoto will be familiar to anyone having seen any of Itami's films, as she almost consistently plays the lead female character).
On this particular day, after more acting, whiskey, viagra and adultery, Buhei suddenly has a coughing bout during which he spits up blood. After recomposing himself and returning home, he is informed by his wife Mari that she is leaving him for a respite. During this exchange, Buhei (manipulatively) relates the incident of coughing up blood, and she immediately drops her packing and brings him to the hospital. After going through a number of tests, the doctors discover that Buhei has malignant cancer of the stomach and must undergo surgery and treatment.
And precisely here is where Itami introduces the pervasive social issue which this film explores. Unlike in the West, it is customary for doctors, nurses and families to hide from the patient the fact the he or she has a life-threatening illness. Thus terminally ill cancer patients are most often not told either that they have cancer or that they are indeed dying. Instead, there is an orchestrated effort by hospital staff and family alike to hide this fact, supposedly for the sake of making things easier for the patient.
But Itami's Daibyonin attempts to demonstrate that this social custom, rather than helping the patient, virtually confines the patient to a future of suspicion and an unprepared death. Thus we watch as Buhei grows increasingly ill, losing all the vim and vigor he only recently exhibited, all the while everyone around him smilingly tells him to "keep persevering" as if he will soon recover and leave the hospital. However, through discussions with an older patient who discovered the deception regarding his own case, Buhei slowly realizes, to his horror, that behind the smiles, everyone but himself has known the terrible truth of his quickly impending death.
Director Itami uses this scenario to thoroughly explore the traditional social rationale espoused by doctors and family, and then focuses on the patient's, here Buhei's, own feelings and wishes regarding being told the truth and thereby treated as one having at least a little control over his last days of life. Though interspersed with slightly comedic elements, as is Itami's style, Daibyonin in the end comes across as a very moving and meaningful tale. It is a tale of an individual's right to know the true nature of his/her illness, and the right to die in a manner reflecting his/her wishes. Itami attempts to demonstrate the validity of these rights in the face of an otherwise near monolithic social tradition which strongly opposes such notions.
Version reviewed: Unsubtitled VHS
|Explores the ramifications of Japan's social custom of hiding from patients the fact that they are dying.||No violence, though rather graphic stock footage of actual surgical procedures involving removal of cancerous tumors.||Buhei, armed with handfuls of viagra, will demonstrate on several occassions that he can still make a young woman moan.||Really nothing here that would constitute strange or unusual.|