It seems that there is a medical-themed drama every year at the Japanese Film Festival, including 2009’s Pandemic and last year’s A Lone Scalpel. Director Yoshihiro Fukagawa has already made an appearance at this year’s JFF with the token food film Patisserie: Coin de Rue, so it is only fitting that the director also has the annual medico-drama with In His Chart (神様のカルテ). Based on an award-winning novel by a young doctor, Sosuke Natsukawa, it has been adapted to the screen by noted TV screenwriter Noriko Goto (The Homeless Student).
Dr. Ichito Kuriharai (Sho Sakurai, Yatterman) is a dedicated physician at a clinic in Nagano Prefecture. Known for never knocking back any of the many patients the hospital receives, he would love to be able to specialise at a teaching hospital and spend more time with his wife Haruna (Aoi Miyazaki, Solanin). However, when terminal cancer patient Kyoko Azumi (Mariko Kaga, Patisserie: Coin de Rue) falls under his care, Kuriharai begins to ruminate on what is important in his life and where he will make the most difference.
There is an air of predictability to In His Chart, from the moment the terminal Azumi is introduced. However, within the confines of this well-worn formula, Goto’s script still manages to take us on an emotional journey, and touches on a number of social aspects that aren’t often seen in cinema. Just as A Lone Scalpel shone a spotlight on the issues around brain-death not being legally recognised for a number of years, the issue that Kuriharai is faced with is whether to focus on just those in front of him or enter a teaching hospital where his research could potentially save thousands. On the intimate scale, the film avoids the tensions caused between Kuriharai’s dedication and his absenteeism from his wife. She is a strong personality in her own right, and supportive of his growing dedication to patient Azumi. Not only is this dynamic refreshing, it manages not to fall into the trap of creating a minor drama for the sake of it.
Star/idol Sakurai is a bit of a jack of all trades in Japan, having appeared in various guises as a singer, actor, newscaster (!), host and radio host. Over the last few years, he has been steadily building a portfolio as a leading man in Takashi Miike’s Yatterman and Yuichi Satō’s Last Promise. He solidifies that reputation in his initially vague portrayal of Kuriharai, who is introduced to us as emotionally disengaged and kind of scruffy-looking. As the film progresses, so too does the character, which is a small miracle in a formula film such as this. The award-winning actress and activist Miyazaki will need little introduction to lovers of contemporary Japanese cinema, and while her role is somewhat sidelined, her presence lights up the screen and her warmth provides a counterpoint to some of the more clinical aspects of the film. Kaga is never the victim, although the melodrama that the film does allow itself is solidly around this character. In His Chart is not one of those films designed to elicit tears, but a few may be shed by the end regardless.
In His Chart is playing at the Japanese Film Festival on 21 November (Sydney) and 3 December (Melbourne) 2011 at the 15th Japanese Film Festival in Australia.