With the 3/11 earthquake and tsunami disaster still close in the rearview mirror, a title such as Japan’s Tragedy automatically makes one assume that we are dealing with a film about the disaster. Which is both true and false. Yes, the film does describe events before, during, and after the earthquake. The film does show the effects it has had on the lives of people, however, it really just functions as a background event and doesn’t show its direct impact. The actual focus of this film is utterly and completely on two characters: dad Fujio (Tatsuya Nakadai) and son Yoshio (Kazuki Kitamura).
Fujio is an elderly man who has recently lost his beloved wife. In the first scene we observe him and his son arriving at home. He is returning from the hospital, he was supposed to undergo surgery for lung cancer but refused. This first stretched-out scene immediately sets the tone for the rest of the film. We observe Yoshio going around the house doing some chores while conversing with his father. Then again, conversing is an overstatement, since it is mostly Yoshio talking and asking questions while Fujio stares off into space blankly and gives minimalist responses. This, in a way, is a summary of 75% of the story of the film. Their conversation is intertwined with flashbacks of their past. Fujio is obviously suffering since the loss of his wife. Halfway through the film he announces that he is going to lock himself in a room and starve to death, and he wants Yoshio to keep the room locked for a year so that he can live off his pension. This leads to a lot of monologues by Yoshio who is also suffering for another reason. As the flashbacks show, his relationship with his own wife and daughter has been very troublesome recently, but since the tsunami disaster they have been missing and this has led him to be somewhat of an emotional wreck. All these feelings pour out whilst trying to convince his father to leave the room.
Veteran actor Tatsuya Nakadai’s depiction of a destroyed, grief-stricken, but determined man is flawless. He sits there staring away, steady as a rock, but with dire pain in his eyes, and in the flashbacks we see him cheerful and warm as he used to be not too long ago. On the other hand, Kitamura is shown as very unstable, trying hard to keep it all together but constantly failing. At a certain point he flails around and cries in anger and really gives it his all. Both actors play extreme roles in some manner but neither overdo it. This is highly admirable since the camera is on them for minutes on end, but Nakadai keeps his composure while Kitamura steers his energy in all the right directions. It is an extremely demanding film for these actors, but also for the viewers.
The plot of the film is obviously quite minimalistic and slow-burning. The presentation of the film might be even more so. The entire story takes place in their rather small house, Kobayashi only uses a mere handful of camera angles, and he does not shy away from going 10 minutes without a cut. Music is also used sparsely and, being black-and-white, the mood is profusely gloomy. The entire focus of this film is on these two actors, it is a character study in one of its purest forms. The good news is that it completely succeeds in its intentions. The bad news is that the viewer must be willing and able to sit through 100 minutes of relative monotonousness. For some it will be a snore-fest, but for the other, perhaps more hardened art house movie lovers it is actually a gem of a film, compelling and powerful from start to finish.