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Kei Chika-ura’s delicately crafted second feature film, “Great Absence,” tenderly peels back the layers of a life entangled with the torn fabric of mental deterioration. This heart-wrenching drama is an intricate examination of memory, loss, and the profound impact of dementia on familial relationships.
The commonly offered solace that the departed live on through our memories proves elusive for Takashi (played by Mirai Moriyama), an introspective adult son who finds himself at the center of Kei Chika-ura’s quietly seismic masterpiece. His journey is complicated by his long-standing estrangement from his father, Yohji (an outstanding Tatsuya Fuji, honored with the Best Performance award at the San Sebastian Film Festival). Yohji’s rapid descent into the fog of dementia adds another layer of complexity, as whatever Takashi learns about his father at this late stage is muddled, fragmented, and possibly false. How does one preserve the memory of someone who can no longer remember themselves?
“Great Absence” ingeniously poses this question as an enigma, amplifying its eerie quality through the mundane clues that hint at its resolution—a neglected meal delivery, a vanished car, a cellphone’s faint beeping from an adjacent room. Takashi, a Tokyo-based actor married to producer Yuki (Yoko Maki), is summoned by the police in response to a distress call from his father’s home in Southern Japan. The cluttered house, adorned with sticky notes offering guidance on using the phone and closing the fridge, houses a bewildered Yohji clutching a briefcase. However, Naomi (Hideko Hara), Yohji’s partner, the woman who left Takashi’s mother many years ago, is conspicuously absent.
Driven more by filial duty than affection, Takashi travels to Southern Japan with the unwavering support of Yuki. The film beautifully captures their marital relationship, subtly illustrating how the unfolding tragedy of Yohji’s condition has the potential to strengthen their bond. Together, they sift through the remnants of Yohji and Naomi’s shared life and visit Yohji in the care facility where he now resides. Yohji’s paranoia and incoherence shroud Naomi’s whereabouts in a series of lurid scenarios, perhaps a defense mechanism against the harsh but inevitable truth, gradually unveiled through the film’s chronology-shifting structure.
The film employs skillful flashbacks, deftly edited by director Kei (who also co-wrote and produced the film), to depict the only two recent encounters between Takashi and Yohji. In the first, Takashi, enjoying newfound success in a period TV drama, visits Yohji and Naomi at their home. In the second, Yuki meets her father-in-law for the first and only time at a Tokyo restaurant, an encounter that quickly loses its cordiality once Takashi joins them. These flashbacks paint exquisite portraits of familial discord obstructing a shared desire for reconciliation, buried beneath layers of reticence and wounded pride.
Through these flashback sequences, viewers gain insight into the unique world of Naomi and Yohji’s relationship—a world hidden from Takashi’s earlier perception of a domineering man of science and an underappreciated housekeeper. The film takes an unexpected turn when Takashi discovers Naomi’s diary, adorned with Yohji’s old love letters. Like a page out of “The Bridges of Madison County,” these letters reveal a passionate side of Yohji that Takashi, himself reserved and aloof, could never have imagined. Alongside painful passages referencing the “woman I never loved” (Takashi’s mother) and the “family I should not have had,” the letters pulsate with desperate longing. They hint at an epic lifelong ardor that now faces erasure from a world in desperate need of love stories.
Shot with restrained realism by Yutaka Yamazaki (known for his work with Kore-eda on films like “Nobody Knows” and “After the Storm”), “Great Absence” bears the unmistakable marks of personal experiences. However, it is Tatsuya Fuji’s portrayal of Yohji’s mental decline that sets the film ablaze. Fuji crafts an unforgettable portrayal marked not only by pitiable moments but also by flashes of raw rage, battling a disease that feels less like loss and more like prolonged theft. The film, while slightly overlong, finds poignancy in its multiple narrative strands and conclusions. It captures dementia’s erratic series of goodbyes, sometimes even to individuals who have lived in the hearts of our loved ones forever but have only just been met.
“Great Absence” is a triumph, skillfully exploring the fragility of memory, the intricacies of family bonds, and the bittersweet essence of love and reconciliation. Kei Chika-ura’s sensitive direction and the exceptional performances of the cast transform this film into a compelling and emotionally resonant experience. It offers profound insights into the power of memory and the profound impact of dementia on familial relationships.
- Title: Great Absence
- Director: Kei Chika-ura
- Screenplay: Kei Chika-ura, Keita Kumano
- Cinematography: Yutaka Yamazaki
- Editing: Kei Chika-ura
- Music: Koji Itoyama
- Cast: Mirai Moriyama, Yoko Maki, Hideko Hara, Tatsuya Fuji
- Language: Japanese
- Running Time: 152 minutes
- Production: Creatps and Signature production
- World Sales: Creatps, Tokyo
- San Sebastian Film Festival (Competition)
- Toronto Film Festival
Note: This review was based on the screening at the San Sebastian Film Festival on September 29, 2023.