Multiple personality disorder, psychopathology, savantism, severe schizophrenia complete with auditory and visual hallucinations, these cinematically "sexy" forms of mental illness and disorder have been portrayed throughout film history from Anatole Litvak's "The Snake Pit" to Barry Levinson's "Rain Man". They lend themselves to innovative plotting, wild visuals and over the top (and in some cases award-winning) performances by actors; but for anyone with a friend or loved one who suffers from mental illness knows the picture that the movies paint rarely approaches the harrowing and wearing reality. Documentaries like "The Devil and Daniel Johnston" which profiled the indie artist and songwriter who suffers from manic-depression or Jonathan Caouette's "Tarnation" which in part chronicled his growing up with a mentally ill mother fared much better, but Kazuhiro Soda's "Mental" bravely goes where very few films have gone before in presenting an unvarnished account of the struggles of the mentally ill told from their perspective.
It's at the Chorale Okayama, an out-patient mental health clinic founded by Dr. Masatomo Yamamoto, that Soda introduces us to a variety of people from all walks of life whose one common denominator is that they've been variously diagnosed as mentally ill. There's the single mother who's due to her bouts of suicidal depression has had her two young children taken away from her, a woman who developed an eating disorder after an offhand comment about her "fat legs", a victim of emotional and mental burn out who channels his experience into his delicately written poetry, a man who constantly fears he will lose control to the "invader" in his head. Each of them have their own personalities, struggles and goals, but like the mentally ill worldwide the patients at the Chorale have had to fight to maintain their individuality in the face of their diagnoses. Thankfully Dr. Yamamoto and his staff aid them in their fight by actively encouraging them to participate in the daily running and upkeep of the Chorale, its milk delivery service Pastel and the Mini-Chorale Restaurant. As for Soda, he gives them the chance to be heard, to tell their stories, in some cases for the first time in their lives.
Soda, who previously spent over a decade making TV documentaries for NHK, has refined his working process into what he now calls "observational" filmmaking meaning no voice over narration, no expository information or onscreen naming of subjects, no music. His first film in this style, 2007's "Campaign" had Soda follow a single subject, his old classmate Kazuhiko Yamauchi as he runs for municipal office, so the lack of these techniques used to flesh out the details of a documentary are not really missed; but audiences who aren't accustomed to such unadorned filmmaking may find themselves struggling to keep the dozen or so patients in "Mental" straight in their heads. Some may also find the unedited sequences of raw emotions and tragic stories, especially that of one woman who has suffered breakdowns and heard voices since she accidentally killed her baby, a bit hard to take. Of the two friends I watched "Mental" with one had to leave because, as he put it, "It was too real." It's true. The level of intimacy that Soda achieves with his subjects by simply focusing his lens on them is often uncomfortable, but it's also remarkable. In many ways his style mirrors the methods of Dr. Yamamoto who instead of talking at his patients instead simply sits still and listens, giving them space and building their trust so they feel they can open up about their fears, hopes and anguish.
To say that Soda's film is without any artistic flourishes wouldn't be entirely true though. There is subtle symbolism at play throughout "Mental" like the repeated shots of a dried leaf dangling precariously from a spiderweb or a mangy stray cat who over time appears to have found a home and someone to love him, his coat becoming cleaner and his bone thin frame fleshed out after a few good meals. But these images of a potential drop and renewal are secondary to what Soda achieves through simply setting up his camera and being sensitive to capture some truly telling moments. With enough patience and attention viewers can share in these moments and take away an understanding of mental illness that few films, documentary or otherwise, have been able to communicate.