Toronto 2023 review: Great Absence (Kei Chika-ura)

“This film should not be missed by any cinephile.”

A major preoccupation of many artists today is aging and how the decline and death of the mind creates devastation, not only for the sick, but for their family and loved ones.  Many directors have grappled with this in various ways:  Michael Haneke clinically deconstructed the final years of a marriage in Amour, Gaspar Noé dived into the mindset of the ever-worsening mental states of a couple in Vortex, and Florian Zeller showed the point of view of an Alzheimer’s patient by filming through the eyes of the patient’s mind in The Father.  Death and aging are powerful subjects, and it is no wonder that filmmakers are so transfixed with the subject of dementia.  As medical technology improves, human lifespans expand and the human body may last longer than the mind.  Because the people that matter to us die in such saddening conditions, filmmakers are turning to film to tell their stories, which helps them provide catharsis for themselves, for their families, and for audiences.

In Great Absence Kei Chika-ura takes an approach different from that of Haneke, Noé, or Zeller.  He prescribes a meditative quality that is full of reflection and uses a humanistic approach to show the final years and the ever-declining mind of Yohji, played by the tremendous and legendary Tatsuya Fuji (In the Realm of the Senses, Bright Future, Ryuzo and the Seven Henchmen).  This approach was similarly seen recently in another Japanese film, Chie Hayakawa’s Plan 75, in which Japanese society attempts to come to grips with a rapidly aging population.  In Great Absence Chika-ura brings extended depth to the fast-aging dementia patient and portrays each scene with candor, realism, and remorse.  Every scene is filled with truths on dementia that are not melodramatic or whimsical, but instead are grounded in an everyday form of honesty and contemplation.    

The main character of the film, Takashi (Mirai Moriyama) returns to Kyushu to see his father Yohji upon learning he has been placed in a senior facility due to his worsening mental state.  Accompanying him is his strong and dedicated wife, played by the luminous Yōko Maki. Another great performance is that of Hideko Hara playing Yohji’s second wife Naomi, who has been his partner for over twenty-five years.  With these strong performances, Chika-ura examines the fortuitous reunion between father and son and how their reunion at the time of Yohji’s worsening dementia is one of remorse, recompense, and forgiveness. 

The structure of the film weaves past and present narratives around time and memory.  To explain the present moments Chika-ura will often use the overlapping narratives of the past and the future to examine the passage of time and how it affects memory.  Further, what may be the most delicate and profound thematic aspect of the film is Chika-ura’s contemplation on the multifaceted nature of love and the role of women in the traditionally male-dominated society.  These are presented with much candor in each relationship: between Yohji and Takashi, between Yohji and Naomi, and between Takashi and his wife.  In each scene the profound care and love between Yohji and Naomi is detailed.  Yojhi’s ever-growing dementia cannot eradicate their dedication and the lifetime that they shared.  This becomes poignant, and there are scenes near the end of the film that erupt with unbridled emotion.

The great emotional peaks of the film are strengthened by the use of 35-millimeter film and the stunning cinematography by Yutaka Yamazaki.  Yamazaki previously worked with Chika-ura on his first film, Complicity, as well as with Hirokazu Kore-eda and Naomi Kawase.  His cinematography helps create stunning shots that leave lasting impacts.  Great Absence is only Chika-ura’s sophomore film, but it immediately rockets him to the top of the list of most impressive and interesting upcoming directors.  He is a major new talent, and this film should not be missed by any cinephile.