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Great Absence

A young man tries to make peace with the father who once abandoned him is now slowly succumbing to dementia - Japanese drama is in Competition at the 71st San Sebastian International Film Festival


This semi-autobiographical tale starts with a phone call from the police, prompting Takashi (Mirai Moriyama) to visit his estranged father Yohji (Tatsuya Fuji) in Southern Japan. His dementia has deteriorated, landing the old man in hot water (and eventually in a mental health institution). Takashi is surprised that Yohji’s second wife Naomi is nowhere to be seen. He is not convinced by his father’s confusing claim that she committed suicide. So our young protagonist sets out to put together the few remaining pieces of the complex jigsaw puzzle (he is aided by old diary entries and love letters), while also rescuing memories from the past, and perhaps a trace of affection. He might even even forge a genuine father-son bond (perhaps for the first time in their lives). Or is it too late?

Takashi is a modern man reconnecting with fast-fading and dying tradition, embodied by his father. Yohji is a retired university professor, once a very respectable man popular amongst the ladies. Perhaps the selfish alpha male who forsakes his child, or perhaps even a man capable of shocking violence. Yohji underwent an acrimonious divorce battle with Takashi’s mother two decades earlier, and has since been in a relationship with two different women (including “suicide” Naomi, whose reappearance provides the film’s most heart-wrenching and enduring moment). While zigzagging back and forth in time, the movie does not provide any clear flashbacks into Yohji’s youth, leaving viewers to imagine the details of the past developments.

Yohji’s dazed mental state is contrasted against the bright and clear cinematography. DOP Yutaka Yamazaki (who worked with Chika-Ura in his debut feature Complicity five years ago) uses 35mm in order to capture the steely urban landscape (with the occasional cherry blossom thrown in for a little tenderness), and maximise the emotional impact of the film. The imagery feels palpable and real, with a very subtle touch of vintage.

Great Absence is doused in unreliable memories, deceptive sentiments, ambiguity and unsolved mysterious. This is intentional, a narrative device crafted in order to mirror Yohji’s fragmented state-of-mind. It doesn’t always work. At times, the script is disjointed and barely coherent. It is ironic that a movie about dementia lacks a little lucidity. The interminable duration of more than two and a half hours is also very challenging, Kei Chika-Ura’s sophomore feature runs out of steam less than halfway into the story. The second half of the film is dotted with repetitive narrative devices and redundant plot developments. By the end of the broken family saga, viewers may find out that it is their cognitive functions that have deteriorated the most.

Great Absence has just premiered in the 71st San Sebastian International Film Festival.

By Victor Fraga - 30-09-2023

Victor Fraga is a Brazilian born and London-based journalist and filmmaker with more than 20 years of involvement in the cinema industry and beyond. He is an LGBT writer, and describes himself as a di...

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