Sunday, July 23, 2017

Nobody Knows

My exploration of the work of Japanese director Hirokazu Koreeda continued last week with a viewing of his 2004 feature film Nobody Knows. The film is based on a real case from 1988 of a family of four children abandoned by their mother to fend for themselves over a period of about nine months, in a small apartment in Tokyo. Koreeda’s version is restrained, leaving out the more shocking details of the true story. As one reviewer puts it:

Koreeda possesses a superior talent for pulling on the heartstrings without ever forcing overt ‘sadness’. Nobody Knows is a story told through close-ups with no tears shed and no dramatic outbursts. Because who needs drama when you can linger for a second too long on those tiny shoes and shatter your audience into a million tiny pieces? (Amy Bowker)

Yûya Yagira as Akira in Nobody Knows
All the children in the film are engaging, but the film encourages us to identify and suffer most acutely with the eldest, Akira, a 12-year-old boy who is given the responsibility of caring for his three younger half-siblings (each child has a different, indifferent father). He valiantly struggles to fill the parental role his mother and her lovers have abandoned, although in some ways, his precocious maturity shows most poignantly when he attempts to remain a child in spite of the burdens placed upon him. Successes in joining in the conventional activities of other boys of his age are brief, however, and each episode of early adolescent exploration or pleasure is rapidly followed by further disintegration of the fragile order at home.

Having come across the psychological term “parentified child,” I initially assumed that this boy, Akira, was a classic, albeit extreme example of this type – a child forced to take on the role of parent, quite literally, due to the failure or inability of their parents to do so. However, as I subsequently discovered, in the literature on family systems, parentification is specifically defined in terms of an emotional role reversal, in which a parent looks to a child to meet their emotional needs, e.g. for affection and intimacy, approval and reassurance, stability and control, because they are not being met by a partner or by other peers. The child may enjoy playing this special role in a parent’s life, but it predicts relationship difficulties the child’s own later life, such as lack of trust that others will be there for them in times of distress, and fear of losing relationships because they cannot meet the other’s needs.

This can be distinguished from the situation when, often for economic reasons, a child is asked to assume a parental role with younger siblings while the parents are absent or otherwise occupied. In this case, the “helpful child” takes on the responsibility of caring for younger children, rather than that of meeting a parent’s emotional needs, and this responsibility has limits, so long as the parent remains clearly in the role of parent when they are present. In contrast to parentification, this experience is usually positive for a child’s development, predicting resilience, capability and personality strengths in later life (Teyber, 2006: 209-211).

In Nobody Knows, the character of Akira shows traits of both the parentified and the helpful child, making it hard to categorise him neatly in terms of this distinction. Early on we witness him attempting both to support and discipline his charmingly playful, but unhappy and impulsive mother. However, we are also made aware of the societal pressures that lead this single mother to hide the existence of her younger children when the family moves to a new apartment, and the difficulties that force her to rely on the older children to help her care for the younger ones. In this role, Akira shows himself to be remarkably capable and resourceful. 

As filmmaker Kenta McGrath observes, Koreeda displays great visual eloquence in evoking both resilience and loss:

As the film progresses, many of the filmed objects are recycled – symbolically by Koreeda, literally by the children – and assume new functions once their initial ones are fulfilled. Empty bowls of Cup Noodles house plants, unpaid bills turn into sketch pads, a suitcase becomes a coffin. Objects and gestures are what linger long after the film ends, reverberating as symbols of resilience, resourcefulness, misfortune, dreams put on hold. (Kenta McGrath)

The children’s creative improvisation, however heartening, is not sufficient to overcome the adversity they face. As it becomes evident that their mother will not return, Akira is left without any reliable adult to turn to when he is unable to meet the needs of the family alone. Not simply parentification in relation to his mother, but distressing prior encounters with the welfare system have engendered a deep lack of trust that others will be there for him or his siblings in times of need. And this lack of trust appears well-founded: although it is obvious that many adults become aware of the children’s plight, nobody chooses to “know” or to become more than superficially involved. This benign neglect leaves the children isolated amid prosperity, abandoned not only by their parents, but by a whole atomised society.

For me, Koreeda's the film elicited a painful moment of recognition: I realised I have witnessed this phenomenon here in Melbourne, many times over. Recently, I have been conducting interviews with people who are or have been homeless, asking them about their own resilience. They have recounted sometimes astonishing examples of the ability to keep going and adapt under conditions of extreme difficulty. Their stories, like that of Koreeda’s film, have also shown me that unsupported, individual resilience is not enough to protect people from intense suffering. The capacity to connect and be seen as part of the wider community in times of need is vital to survival, and this capacity crucially depends on the willingness of others – others in proximity, but also others in positions of power and influence – to pay attention, to “know” what is happening and to respond in a humane, flexible, responsible way. Too often, in these neoliberal capitalist times, such willingness seems to be in distressingly short supply.

It strikes me that the problem highlighted by Koreeda’s film, and by increasing rates of homelessness in a wealthy city like Melbourne, should not be seen as a failure of empathy or compassion. These virtues are attractive but cannot be compelled, and in any case, they are entirely absent neither in the film, nor in the experiences of my interviewees. Rather, when disaster strikes the vulnerable and their suffering is not mitigated by social supports, this is a failure of social responsibility.

Thursday, July 13, 2017

After Life

Last night at the Melbourne Cinematheque, I saw an unusual, thought-provoking film called After Life, made in 1998 by Japanese director Hirokazu Koreeda. It depicts the first stage after death as a week-long stay in a run-down institution, where the newly dead are given three days to reflect on their lives and select a single memory. Once the choice is made, the staff in the institution recreate and film the memory. Finally, these memories are relived via a group screening at the end of the week, allowing each individual to “move on” immediately to a place where their chosen memory will be all they recall, with the rest of their life erased.

The first task for the staff is to gently guide each person in the process of reflecting on their life and choosing a single memory. There are no selection criteria or guidelines, although most people choose a moment of simple happiness. For some the source of joy is sensory – cherry plum blossoms falling in a garden, flying in a light aeroplane through clouds, the feeling of a warm breeze enveloping the body during a childhood bus ride. For others it is bound to relationships – the adoration of an older brother, a late moment of companionship within a long marriage. Some begin with conventional visions of pleasure and later abandon them for more authentic memories, although there are hints that they remain somewhat uncertain of the value and details of these as well. Most challenging for the staff are the few who cannot or will not choose a memory. Various reasons for this difficulty are implied: a view of life so dark that the person cannot retrieve a convincing moment of happiness; anxiety that nothing achieved during life was sufficiently significant or met early ambitions; the conviction that to remember everything is a burden of responsibility that must not be evaded.  
Hirokazu Koreeda (1962 - )
At the end of the film (which involved more than I have revealed here), the friend sitting next to me asked if I had been thinking about what my chosen memory would be. A few thoughts about this had crossed my mind, but mostly I had identified with the staff of the institution, rather than the dead people. The film reminded me of work I have been doing as a provisional psychologist in a big public hospital: listening, asking about, and reflecting upon patients’ accounts of their experience, attempting to create a space in which they can set aside pressures to conform to conventional expectations or judgments, discover what is important to them, and freely share those memories that rise to the surface of the vast flow of a life. Of course, the memories people share with a psychologist are not typically accounts of simple pleasure. Rather, people come because their connection with what brings joy has been clouded. They have memories that cause suffering or confusion, and need to be shared and allowed to shift in their meaning, rather than fixed for eternity. As in the case of the characters in the film who cannot choose a memory, the process also involves uncovering habits of thinking and feeling that tend to block the vital connection to positive experience.

Late in the film, one of the staff says he cannot bear to keep doing his work, constantly saying goodbye to people. This struck a chord, coming in a week in which I had final sessions with several clients. Many of them had shared life experiences of great passion and suffering during our work together. These exchanges had been very meaningful for me as well as them, creating a strong sense of connection between us. In most cases we were ending the therapeutic relationship, not from a sense of natural closure or completion of the work, but simply because my placement at the hospital is finishing next week. There was often a sense of loss and regret on both sides that we could not continue.

However, keeping therapeutic relationships short is recommended in contemporary clinical psychology. “Time-limited interventions,” like the time-pressured process depicted in the film, are in favour. During the day on which I saw After Life, I also went to a presentation on early intervention for young people with borderline personality disorder, given by Professor Andrew Chanen, Director of Clinical Services at Orygen in Melbourne. He explained that the treatment offered there is concluded after an agreed number of sessions, “no matter what” (his rather weary, care-worn expression intimated what this short phrase might encompass in the case of his client group). In part, this practice is based on the view that if a client does not benefit during the standard time of treatment, this indicates that the treatment approach is not working, and more of the same is unlikely to help. In this sense, the discipline is as much for the therapists as the clients, assisting them to let go of any ego-based need to prove they can help by holding onto a client who is not responding, and helping to ensure they do not get caught in relationship dynamics that are part of the client’s problems. 

Musing about this in the wake of the film, I imagined a variant on the theme of After Life, a story in which human lives are seen as opportunities for “time-limited interventions.” Guardian-angel-therapists (devas, perhaps) are given the predetermined span of a single lifetime to help their allocated humans relinquish the delusions and cravings that feed dissatisfaction, with the therapeutic goal of teaching them how to rest in contentment. No guarantees of success, and no extensions of time...