If you had to give a label to TV documentarian Naoko Nobutomo, professional would probably be it – to a fault perhaps. Making her feature documentary debut, like with her television work, Nobutomo has chosen a very private subject, but does not allow her personal involvement in the scenario to get in the way of her work as a director.
Her parents, like an increasing number of Japanese, are approaching nearly a century of life. But stubborn as ever, they want to maintain their independence. With Naoko their only daughter – and only source of family support – living in Tokyo, the couple live on top of each other in their cramped Kure, Hiroshima home, surrounded by her father’s endless piles of books. Her father, a typical male, sits reading all day, with little-to-no domestic skills. But as a man approaching 100 years of life perhaps deserves a rest. Her mother is hard working and takes charge of all the household chores.
But becoming increasingly forgetful, her mother is diagnosed with dementia, posing a difficult question for the parents and the daughter. Naoko offers to move back to join them and help, but having always been encouraging of her in her career, they refuse; though she still visits regularly to film them going about their daily lives. But with her father deaf and her mother’s condition deteriorating, it is clear that they need help. Well into his Nineties now, her father starts to take charge with cooking and laundry for the first time in his life, but he is an old, slow man who can only do so much. As such, support workers come in to help cook and clean, as well as check up on them, which they reluctantly accept.
They remain stubborn and struggle along; him not hearing her while she endlessly shouts in need. This obviously causes tension between the couple of six decades, as Naoko’s camera keeps rolling.
Nobutomo acquired a camera early in the new millennium. As such, she practiced by filming her parents, and indeed her own life. This resulted in her making a television documentary about her breast cancer. Early in the film, we are shown clips of her treatment, and resulting hairloss; Nobutomo exposing herself to the camera. These clips show the support her parents gave her during this period; parents strong for their only daughter.
This openness is present throughout “I Go Gaga, My Dear”, with Nobutomo keeping the camera rolling throughout arguments and moments that would clearly embarrass her mother as her behaviour becomes increasingly erratic. This also makes for awkward viewing: she watches as her father struggles with two bags of shopping and her mother chooses to lie on the pile of laundry, rather than place it in the washing machine. As a daughter, she should intervene; as a filmmaker, she keeps the camera rolling. Kamera wo tomeruna!
But the parents’ stubbornness has worn off on her and she pursues her work. Her parents – while eventually calling her to stop the camera in later scenes when tiredness clearly rules over them – have always been encouraging of her in her career, even if that involves her filing them relentlessly at their worst. They gave everything for her, and in her own way she is showing her gratitude.
But along with the awkwardness is comedy. This is a no doubt comedy scenario: her mother has dementia while her father is increasingly deaf. Conversations, therefore, are stunted and repetitive, with the daughter clearly taking some amusement from this. Combined with typical bickering between a couple who have been together so long, this is not a bleak portrait. And while references are made to insurance relating to care and support, Nobutomo does not turn this into a political message about Japan’s ageing population and strains on all concerned.
Reminiscent of the long-term relationship of Mo-young Jin’s “My Love Don’t Cross that River” and the observational filmmaking of Kazuhiro Soda, Nobutomo takes a simple approach to her film, allowing minimal narration and narrative. And despite her closeness to the subject, she does not appear too much on screen herself, allowing her two stars to speak for themselves.