Movie Review – Pieta in the Toilet

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EXPECTATIONS: A long, understated drama held together by its two appealing leads.

REVIEW: Terminal affliction dramas have been a long trope in films, with such classics like Love Story, Bright Star, Me and Earl and the Dying Girl, Biutiful and Sunny; either handling the subject manner in an understated manner or wringing all the dramatic juice out of it for all of its worth.

It is definitely used as an easy in for audience sympathy, which some filmmakers have taken advantage of to the point that there have been some horrific films like My Sister’s Keeper, P.S I Love You, Restless and of course, Me Before You. Those are examples that are exploitative, insistent and borderline offensive.

So when I was planning to watch Pieta in the Toilet, I was a bit nervous as to how the film would turn out. But I had an open mind when I read that the director of the film, Daishi Matsunaga, was a documentary filmmaker who decided to make this film his first narrative feature. His background in documentaries could be a positive factor in making the approach to the terminal affliction genre as realistic as possible. So did the film put my mind at ease and impress me, despite my doubts?

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Yojiro Oda stars as Sonoda, a former art school graduate who currently works as a window-washer. After lightly berating a new employee over fainting on the job, he himself faints, and consults a doctor about. In a blunt fashion towards Sonoda (as well as the audience), the doctor says that he is suffering advanced stages of stomach cancer and he must commence stages of chemotherapy to increase the chances of beating it.

Gradually, we learn more about Sonoda and his past, which includes his ex-girlfriend Satsuki (Saya Ichikawa), who is also an artist, but unlike Hiroshi, she was able to become a success, exhibiting one-woman shows of her samples of artwork. As Sonoda learns about his illness, he decides to hold off on telling his family and tries to get Satsuki to pose as his sister. But after a fight between the two, Sonoda spots Mai (Hana Sugisaki), an impulsive high school girl who is berating an older gentleman for accidentally tearing up her school uniform.

Sonoda agrees to pay for the damages if she would pose as his sister and she reluctantly agrees. It is then that the two start an unlikely relationship that we gradually see that they might have more in common than one would think.

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Now how does the film rank alongside other terminal affliction entries? Pretty damn high, I must say. Pieta in the Toilet is a seemingly simple story effectively told with fantastic direction, top-notch performances, a well-written script and indescribable cinematography that is reminiscent of the cinematography in Linda Linda Linda (both lensed by Ikeuchi Yoshihiro).

First off, the direction. As mentioned earlier, director Daishi Matsunaga had directed documentaries before this; one being about an actual famous artist, and it clearly shows in his latest effort. Aiming for the tone to be realistic yet extracting beauty throughout the mundane settings like a swimming pool or a hospital, Matsunaga strikes the perfect balance that makes the film a lot more hopeful that one would think of its grim story.

The storytelling is also very understated and never resides to tugging heartstrings or playing sappy music to get its emotions across. Sometimes, it is a bit too understated to the point that it makes one wonder if the film is as clinical as the hospital setting. Fortunately, Matsunaga bides his time, gradually building up the momentum of the story as well as developing his characters that it creates a genuinely cathartic pay-off.

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The actors deserve massive credit for making the film as credible as it is. Yojiro Oda (part of RADWIMPS, a rock band that is responsible for the score in the animated blockbuster, Your Name) gives an effective performance as Sonoda that might be a bit muted at first, but like the film, gets more emotional throughout the running time.

On the contrary, Hana Sugisaki is fantastic as the brash and impulsive Mai, who may have a tough exterior, but would eventually reveal a more vulnerable side. Her interactions, whether she’s being flirtatious or antagonistic, are always nuanced and she never goes cutesy to get the interest of the audience. There’s a scene in a swimming pool where she and Oda confront each other and it is a compelling experience of anger, acceptance, naivety and stubbornness that is strongly poignant.

As for the supporting actors, Lily Franky is a delight as a pervert/hospital patient who befriends Sonoda. Not only does he bring some much-needed humour to the proceedings, he also brings credibility to the dramatic parts alongside Oda, making the progression of Sonoda very easy to believe. He also shows his bare ass (not on the titular toilet, fortunately), which alone earns extra points. While Rie Miyazawa, a great veteran actress, does wonders with her small role as a mother of a cancer patient, and she even has a scene to herself that is one of the best scenes in the film.

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Speaking of best scenes in the film, the climax is a thing of beauty that perfectly encapsulates the arcs of the characters, the beauty of its story and even surprises with its daring final shot. It may last a few seconds and it proceeds past the point where it would seem obvious to a normal storyteller would end their story, but without going into spoilers, there is something about it that really pays off in retrospect.

Despite its strange title that would understandably turn people off, Pieta in the Toilet is a wonderful piece of film-making with fantastic performances, assured storytelling, a well-written script and surprisingly beautiful cinematography that not only adds hope to the story itself, but the genre as well.

Quickie Review

PROS

Fantastic performances from its cast

Wonderful direction/storytelling that balances beauty and realism in a grim story

Surprising cinematography that finds beauty in the most mundane settings

CONS

May be too understated for its own good in the first two acts

SCORE: 9/10

Cast: Yojiro Noda, Hana Sugisaki, Lily Franky, Saya Ichikawa, Shinobu Otake, Rie Miyazawa
Director: Daishi Matsunaga
Screenwriters: Daishi Matsunaga, Osamu Tezuka (original concept)

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