SUICIDE RATES in Japan may have fallen — CNN reported in 2018 that the total number of suicides in the country fell to 21,321 in 2017 compared to a peak of 34,427 — but rookie director Kasumi Nojiri who directed Lying to Mom (2018) doesn’t believe in these numbers, saying that the number of people who committed suicide is probably misreported by the government.

“If you look at the same numbers, the number of younger people committing suicide is on the rise,” Mr. Nojiri told reporters during an interview on Aug. 3 at the Cultural Center of the Philippines where his movie was shown as part of the ongoing Cinemalaya film festival.

The CNN report noted that 250 elementary and high school children took their lives between 2016 and 2017, 5% more than the previous year.

The director’s personal experience with suicide led him to create his first film in 2018, a film which talks about how Japanese society views suicide and a story about family.

The film won the 31st Tokyo International Film Festival’s Japanese Cinema Splash Best Film Award and the 2019 Uncaged Award for Best Feature Film at the New York Asian Film Festival.

“Before the death of my older brother by suicide, I used to think of my family as air — they’re just there,” he said before admitting that there were times that he felt they were a burden. But after his brother’s death, he said he realized that blood ties are impossible to break, and with that acceptance, he felt a huge weight has been lifted from his shoulders.

In much the same way, Lying to Mom, is a story about a family that deals with the suicide of the oldest son and how the family, especially the youngest daughter, deal with his death.

The oldest son is a hikikomori (a recluse) who would not leave his room. When he decides to take his life, his mother, who witnesses this, tries to save him, injuring herself in the process. When she wakes up in the hospital, she has forgotten her son’s suicide and her daughter decides to keep the truth from her mother to spare her the pain.

Mr. Nojiri said that Japan is a very competitive country and people have to follow a strict life plan — high school, university, and find a good company to work for — and anyone who deviates or fails to follow this plan are deemed failures, and that feeling of failure is sometimes what causes people to cut themselves off from society entirely, turning into hikikomori.

If the premise of the movie seems grim, it is, but Mr. Nojiri, who thinks that films are “in the end, for entertainment,” decided to make it into a comedy of errors where the lies snowball until the family can’t keep lying anymore.

“Before my brother was buried, my parents argued about which statue of our pet my brother would like more sitting beside his tombstone — my mother said he liked the cat better, my father said he liked the dog better — and it struck me as funny that they could argue about something like that, but as I thought about it, it was their way of showing my brother that they love him by thinking about what he likes,” Mr. Nojiri said.

The daughter in the film (played by Mai Kiryu), is a beautifully complex character who deals with the death of her brother with resentment, anger, and finally acceptance, in much the same way Mr. Nojiri recounted dealing with his brother’s death.

“I was angry and it took about 10 years to stop lying and accept what happened,” he said before adding that he used to lie about his brother’s cause of death to the point that he has now forgotten all the reasons he used to tell people.

The film ultimately is about those who are left behind and all the “whys” that come after.

“If it were death due to sickness or crime, there’s a clear-cut reason why this person died, but suicide is not the same thing. Those left behind wonder why it happened and if it was their fault or whose fault was it,” he said.

Mr. Nojiri may have done a film about suicide in Japan which serves as a mirror to Japanese society, but he admitted that he still worries about how his mother would view the film.

“I always get nervous giving interviews about the film because I worry about how my mother would feel if she reads something about it,” he said.

Lying to Mom is one of the films presented in this year’s Eiga Sai Japanese Film Festival which runs until Aug. 25 in several cities in the Philippines. The same film was also screened in the 2019 Cinemalaya Film Festival.

For more information on the film’s screening schedule, visit the Eiga Sai PH Facebook page. — Zsarlene B. Chua