Recent figures have once again shown a decline in the number of suicides in Japan: a trend across the past decade. But Japan is still a place where rates of suicide are high, unless you live through the long, lonely nights of Greenland, of course. Katsumi Nojiri, in his feature debut, tackles both the problem of suicide and the hikikomori phenomenon and the impact both have on the family left out in the cold and/or behind.
Initially, “Lying to Mom” may feel like something of a Japanese remake of Wolfgang Becker’s “Good Bye Lenin!” We start with Koichi (Ryo Kase), a hikikomori, hanging himself in his bedroom – his world. Yuko (Hideko Hara), his mother, returns home from the shops to find him. Running for a knife from the kitchen, she ends up on the floor herself; her arm slashed. It is then left for sister Fumi (Mai Kiryu) to find them both when she returns home later that day.
But with Yuko left in a coma from her injury, when she wakes on the 49th day of mourning for Koichi, along with husband Yukio (Ittoku Kishibe) and younger brother Hiroshi (Nao Omori), her family can’t bring themselves to tell her about Koichi’s death; suffering, as she is, from slight amnesia. Linked to Hiroshi’s work contacts, they tell her he suddenly gave up the hikikomori lifestyle and moved to Argentina.
Yuko’s joy at the news is huge, realising her son has a normal life, with Hiroshi’s work contact sending postcards from Koichi, as well as anything loosely connected to Argentina. Going to extreme lengths for the charade, it leads to further lies, before the truth finally outs itself, with inevitable fallout.
The earlier comparison to “Good Bye Lenin!” may on the surface initially seem correct, and with its Argentine connections, could be named “Good Bye Che!” But as the story develops, this is a much more Japanese film, with various significant cultural reference points throughout. On waking, Yuko finds her family dressed in black, the 49th day of mourning the first concealment. The family also suffer with the social stigma of suicide, with Buddhist ceremonies refused on account of this. And there is also the phenomenon of hikikomori, and the family trying to uncover what may have caused Koichi to become a recluse in the first place.
Each of the family cope in their own way, with both the suicide and the deceit. Yukio haunts a soapland massage parlour hoping to speak to a woman to whom Koichi mysteriously left his life insurance; and try and find some answers to his son’s mysterious life. Fumi spends her days in a grief support group, but is often unable to open up in front of other mourners of suicide victims; and her attempts at floor gymnastics are clearly affected by the distress of her words thrown in her brother’s direction. While Hiroshi, an eternal child, giggles at everything.
The cast of familiar faces all do their best, with Kishibe the inscrutable father, Hara the proud mother and Omori the giggling, carefree man of youth. The ever-serious Kiryu steals the show, however, with numerous breakdowns, both in counselling and at the gym. This is very much her film. Kase, as Ryo, appears only in the opening scene, voiceovers and flashbacks, and so is both central to the film, but also on the periphery.
But despite good performances from the cast, this is a film that isn’t quite sure what it wants to be. The bizarre premise is executed in an, at times, silly and inexplicable manner. This culminates in the revelation as to Koichi’s fate in farcical circumstances, with Hiroshi’s work colleague’s drunken stupor causing him to do anything but “keep mum.” But this clumsy humour is offset against moments of serious drama and emotion. While balance is always good, the two extremes on display hinder consistency. As such, you’re left not entirely sure as to who this is aimed at. And, in the end, Yuki doesn’t seem too distraught, even playing a foolish prank on the remainder of the family in revenge.
But based on his own personal circumstances, with an older brother who was a hikikomori who committed suicide, Nojiri provides enough of the good to not completely lose his cause. It is clear that Fumi reflects his own part in his family situation, hence why she is the key focus. And despite its lengthy run time, “Lying to Mom” doesn’t drag on. But lying creates the need for more lies, which will eventually result in inconsistencies. Nojiri could have perhaps focused more on the truth, and less on the movie lies.