As an unwritten rule of cinematic common sense states, working with children, animals and disabilities can be tricky to say the least. Nevertheless, riding a wave of change in the representation of disabilities – which recently resulted in few successful outcomes – director Tetsu Maeda builds his curiously-but-aptly-titled film “A Banana? At This Time of Night?” around the tenacious and inspiring personality of a man diagnosed in early age with MD but determined to live independently and to the full. It is indeed a real story and the film is based on the novel “Konna Yofuke ni Banana kayo” by Kazufumi Watanabe. Let’s see what director Maeda made of the aforementioned wise advise.
Yasuaki Shikano (Yo Oizumi) is a man with MD (muscular dystrophy) and therefore confined to a wheelchair. He was diagnosed at 12 and given only 8 more years left to live. Now at 34, he is alive and indeed kicking. Determined to live independently from family support like any other man of his age and with many dreams he wants to chase, Shikano uses unashamedly a small army of volunteers to help him in everyday duties and chores.
The narration starts in 1994 and introduces immediately Tanaka (Haruma Miura), a medical student in Hokkaido Prefecture who takes care of Shikano, alternating shifts with all the others volunteers, and his girlfriend Misaki (Mitsuki Takahata) who decides to join the group of carers, only in the hope of spending extra time with her sweetheart. However she soon realises Shikano is far from an easy, compliant or passive disable person but, on the contrary, he is demanding, capricious (as the titular banana reveals), outspoken and often unpleasant. After an initial banter, Shikano – who always speaks his mind – reveals his crush on Misaki to Tanaka and the shy student chooses to disclose his own involvement with the girl. Despite the little white lie, a profound friendship develops between the two dedicated volunteers and Shikano, and if on one side this will help the man to overcome some tragic developments of his deteriorating health, on the other his determination will pass onto his friends giving them more that they can possibly expect.
“A Banana? At This Time of Night?” deals with a cruel disease and, MD being a degenerative illness, we all know how the story will end, before even starting. However, the purpose of the film is to show us the amazing and inspiring life of a man who is living his life with the stubborn determination of an immortal, enjoying every day and having always something to look for and dreams to accomplish.
To avoid saccharine overload, the director cleverly presents Shikano as an eccentric – almost rude – tyrant at the beginning, and takes his time and fun in making us change our mind along the way. What results in the end is a positive portrait of a strong-willed and independent man and the story of a beautiful friendship with plenty of giving and taking.
Teary moments are still there, as the illness progresses, to melt us and to remind us of Shikano’s (and our) mortality, but they are counterbalanced by the man’s joie de vivre, his penchant for practical jokes, and some crude mundanities of his disability status. Curiously, the movie advocates Shikano’s straight talking and the necessity of never refraining from telling what we think, a characteristic that is certainly all but Japanese!
Yo Izumi is the core of the film, his acting as an immobilized man is very physical – even if this could sound as an oxymoron – and his work on facial expressions and voice contributes greatly to make the film special and meaningful. Beautiful Mitsuki Takahata and Haruma Miura as loyal friends Tanaka and Mitsuki are equally convincing, especially Mitsuki’s continuous mutual exchange of energy and motivation with Shikano and their captivating positive attitude to life and to each other.
All in all, “A Banana? At This Time of Night?” despite not shining in originality, succeeds in keeping a balanced mix between fun, tears, compassion and it is undeniably a carrier of contagious vitality.