My childhood friend Aguinaco, already a grown-up paterfamilias, used to stress how much he detested films with subtitles because they prevented him from focusing on the story and the images. He called them derogatorily “libropelículas” (book-movies). No matter how hard I tried to sell him the benefits of a film in original version, as far as I know, he never changed his mind.
The other day I went to see a libropelícula, but this time, it was even more special: the subtitles not only repeated the dialogues –they were in the same language, Japanese, not in translation- but they also explained background noises and scenery; and the characters’ mute actions were related by a neutral narrator’s voice. All this was meant for the deaf and the blind, a 30% of the audience at this peculiar movie theater.
At the beginning, it felt a bit disrupting, but once you got used to the different voices, it was even rewarding, especially for non-native speakers like me, a similar experience to reading a book and watching the movie at the same time. The professional work had been made by a NGO call 京都リップル, Kyoto Ripple, whose staff and volunteers decide on matters such as the timing and the content of the narration by the robotic –for not to be mistaken with one of the characters’- voice in off. This unusual process is the closest you can get to a limited-knowledge but very reliable 3rd person narrator in a book. I wonder how this “reading” of the movie would affect to the literary theories of Reader-Response, especially when a non-deaf non-blind watcher-reader sees the film and is continually confronted with what she is watching, listening and reading.
As for the story and the reflection that it stimulates, there is no waste at all in 手紙 Tegami Letters: a man accidentally kills an old woman when breaking into her house and steal money to pay for his younger brother’s school fees and he is incarcerated. The younger brother quits school and struggles through life in society being always tagged as a convict’s relative.
The trite topic of family responsibility in the Japanese society, 義理 giri, is cast a new light with this movie, which mixes aspects such as discrimination –whether if it’s for reasons of money, class, or even the past-, the penitentiary system –as if explained by Foucault– and the related possibility of rehabilitation for ex-convicts, including forgiveness.
Both brothers only correspond by written letters, hence the film’s title and a useful resource for people averse to communicate verbally, especially after the shame of having committed a despicable act. They keep a mutual but unbalanced dependence relationship through these letters, which symbolize the younger brother Naoki’s one of the many pay-backs for his elder brother’s crime because, as he finds on the screen of his computer when searching about penal information: 犯罪者の家族も犯罪です A criminal’s family is also criminal, which becomes a motif in the film, ultimately trying to denounce the discrimination at personal and professional level for a family-related past event. However, as a different character wisely tells him in another scene: 差別は当たり前ですよ Discrimination is a natural thing, a spontaneous reaction from human beings, as a self-defense immediate response to danger. And he continues: “But the answer is not to run away. You have to stay, face it and live with it”. Eventually, they will change their minds, he seems to be suggesting.
Like the children in the film, manichaeistically raised in the fear of the “evil” by those マザーコン over-protective mothers, who forbid them to play with a “marked” child or flee at the sight of the rejected mother, our societies need many more examples like this one to teach us the human side of family, tragedy and crime.
I wish my good friend Aguinaco had seen this libropelícula, too. He would have felt moved like most of the audience watching this interesting cycle of Japanese society-related films.