A numbing cold look at depression in Japan
Director Mike Mills may actually want viewers to feel bored and numbed-out during "Does Your Soul Have a Cold?" His documentary is about depression in Japan and his sense that antidepressants have failed there, and so he may intend for us to suffer the oppressive detachment of those we're observing. Call it Method Viewing.
But, ultimately, "Does Your Soul Have a Cold?," which premieres tonight at 9 on IFC, takes a rich topic and drains it of life. Until 2000, depression was publicly under-acknowledged in Japan, according to the movie. With the marketing of antidepressants there by
Mills isn't interested in digging up facts and shaking out the truth with Michael Moore-like rigor. The movie is a more poetic assessment, as Mills and his film crew follow a handful of subjects on antidepressants as they wander listlessly through their daily lives. There's Kayoko, who complains that the drugs don't work anymore but says she felt awful the one time she stopped taking them. Mills doesn't pursue information from Kayoko, or from doctors, about her standstill; her comments don't get the attention they beg for. For example, is she on the right medication? Instead, the cameras just watch her and her sad eyes, and watch them more.
The most compelling subject may be Ken, who likes to wear high heels with shorts and act as a slave in S&M activities. Ken enjoys pain, and yet he is quite unhappy with his life. But the movie merely observes him respectfully, never moving close enough to explore the relationship between his masochism and his depression. It's as if Mills is spending some 90 minutes making only one simple point - that Ken, as well as the others we meet, are still depressed despite their meds. See, they're still depressed. See, still depressed.
The dolorous tone of "Does Your Soul Have a Cold?" is reinforced by its meticulous, monotonous visual approach. Mills, who directed the feature "Thumbsucker," makes Tokyo look melancholy and bare, with empty subway cars and groupings of pedestrians moving slowly toward one another. Most of the subjects are shown sitting still, staring at the middle distance, while we hear their interviews in the form of a voice-over. They aren't moving forward, and neither is the movie.
Matthew Gilbert can be reached at email@example.com.