“Thumbsucker” filmmaker Mike Mills goes the documentary route and takes camera and crew to Japan to observe the lives of people on anti-depressants. He follows a handful of subjects struggling with depression, something that really wasn’t addressed in Japanese culture until American pharmaceutical companies decided to expand their market and in 1999 began a depression awareness ad campaign in Japan with the slogan “Does Your Soul Have A Cold?” Since then, depression has been acknowledged as a treatable illness and, such as it goes for much of the American population, many Japanese are on at least one type of anti-depressant. Together Mills’ subjects, coming from different walks of life, but telling very similar horror stories, paint a picture of what it’s like to be down and out in Japan.
Mills introduces us to his five subjects, including a guy named Ken who takes to wandering around the city in teeny little butt cheek revealing short shorts and high heels. He’s also a slave in bondage sessions. Ken’s proud, but besides his manner of dress, isn’t very loud as he suffers from severe depression. He still lives with his folks and spends a good part of his free time in his room sleeping. There’s also Mika, who tells us of her botched suicide attempt and her fear that she’ll do it again as there was no significant event that set her off, she had just decided that she needed to die. We’re also introduced to t-shirt printing plant employee Kayoko who, like the others, depends on various anti-depressants to get her through the day, even though the drugs don’t seem to be doing as much as they used to. Then there’s Taketoshi who uses art therapy, as well as a various assortment of pills to cope. And finally we meet Daisuke who lives in a tiny, cramped apartment, totally littered with garbage. These people invite us into their otherwise sheltered lives. Feeling helpless and at the mercy of the pills they’ve become so dependent on, these people reveal to us their own personal hell and what it’s like to live with this disorder in a culture that is barely starting to understand it. Shot against a gray, dreary Japan, these stories aren’t the most uplifting, but they’re important to hear just the same.
The word “bravery” comes to mind as the film rolls out as brave is exactly what these people are for putting themselves and their troubles out there for all to see, not because they crave the attention, but because they want others to learn from them. These charming, intelligent people are major heroes. If your soul has a cold, this film just may be the medicine you’ve been looking for.