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Movie Analysis: Family of Strangers

Japanese Title: 閉鎖病棟
Alternative Title: Closed Ward
Release Date: November 1, 2019
Director: Hideyuki Hirayama

Black fades to white. A man is escorted by policemen to an execution chamber. A sack is put on his head. The trap door opens, and he is left dangling. After a few moments, a doctor comes in to check his body. But with a jerk, he starts breathing again. As officials decide what to do with him, he is again put in a prison cell. There is neither relief nor happiness on his face. All he is, is just an empty shell who somehow survived capital punishment.

What happens when a death row inmate does not die? Hidemaru, the sentenced offender, is sent to live the rest of his life in Rokuojin Mental Hospital in Nagano. Here he meets two other patients: Yuki Shimazaki and Nakaya Tsukamoto, with whom he forms a special bond throughout the course of the movie.


Color and the Ward

The opening scene of Closed Ward is a study in stark monochrome. Black and white in Japan are colors associated with funerals -- fitting for a scene about a person who is to be taken to death row. Though the color never truly becomes bright or vibrant, the asylum was painted with an atmosphere warmer and more positive than I expected.

Slicing through the Characters

Many people treat mental disorders as a stigma. Nakaya occasionally gets auditory hallucinations. This is usually a symptom of a mental disorder, but what he had was not specifically stated in the movie. Though the stigma was not given much of a spotlight in the story, it did manifest briefly when a shop vendor and a customer gossiped about Nakaya. The woman seemed worried that people from the hospital are allowed to wander outside and the old vendor seemed to mock the idea of “crazy” people having rights.

The contrast between the personality of Nakaya, and his two family members was interesting. Nakaya showed a personality that emanates patience and understanding whilst his father and sister resort to distancing when something turns into what they consider a nuisance or a problem. They paid for Nakaya’s hospital bills but ignored him for years, until they wanted to ask for his permission to have his mother admitted to a nursing home. When Nakaya chose to take responsibility for his mother, the family protested, thinking that he would become their responsibility. What he found instead when he went home was a mother who was still gardening and still capable of recognizing him – a far cry from the dementia-plagued person his father and sister and described.

Yuki was also a pitiful character, living as she did in a household devoid of love. There are many minors who do not report sexual abuse right away for various reasons. Some of them include knowing the attacker well and having an attacker who is a part of their family—both of which are the case here for Yuki. Her mother and stepfather were the embodiment of people who should not have been parents. Her saving grace here, however, is love.

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Yuki looked empty and soulless when she first entered the hospital. When she attempted to end her own life, she fell onto the camellia bushes that Nakaya was taking care of. The camellia in Japan symbolizes “love”. It foreshadowed the fact that love will save her, despite the tribulations that she would meet until the end of the story. She might not have had the family that she wanted at first, but she met Hidemaru and Nakaya who gave her the companionship that she needed.

Meanwhile, Hidemaru’s earthenware reflects him. The things that he made were far from perfect, but it is in their imperfections that you find the beauty of each piece. He was once driven to a moment of insanity upon seeing his wife cheat on him with another man. He, like his vases and other works, is just flawed; there is still goodness in him. He fought for Yuki in a way her mother could not, and he became somewhat like a father figure to Nakaya. He had a lot of redeeming qualities that made him likable as a character, and was a wonderful lens through which viewers can be made to understand why good people can commit crimes.

A Question Left Unanswered

It is normal for people to assume that patients with violent tendencies are strictly watched over by the people in charge. It was not however, the case for Shigemune. Shigemune was accompanied by an inattentive nurse who just stood there doing nothing, making it easy for him to go out and attack someone in the pottery studio. There was also a noticeable dearth of psychiatric attendants in the facility. It left me wondering if this is mirroring the situation in Japanese mental hospitals or if it was just written that way for plot convenience.

Two Cents on the Actors

The portrayal of each character, especially the three main characters, was convincing enough to drive people to tears. Although Tsurube Shofukutei did an amazing job as Hidemaru Kajiki, Ayano Go and Nana Komatsu also stood out quite strongly throughout the entire film. This is one of the best roles that I have seen Go play, and his realistic depiction of Nakaya when he is in the middle of his hallucinations, can shake the viewers to the core. As for Nana, anyone who has been watching her movies since Kawaki will be proud to see how much she has grown as an actress. The anguish and emotions of Yuki were beautifully executed by Komatsu. Their exceptional performance is a big factor in why I consider this a worthy movie to watch.

The Verdict

This film shows how people who are unrelated to you by blood can be your family. Family can be found in the people who give you a “home” in their company. This is a beautiful truth that I hope more people realize.

Closed Ward is good to watch because it is a movie that reflects this truth, and shows viewers that there is hope for those who have fallen outside the cracks of what society considers acceptable. It teaches people not to define themselves by what they did or by what happened in the past. It gives a glimpse of how the small light that we can offer another can do more than just save a person’s life-- It can give them a reason to live and the will to stand up again to face another day.

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