-1287: Directed and filmed by Ian Thomas Ash. Running Time: 70 minutes.
Each of us needs to face our death. Not that we ever want to. No one likes to think about death, especially their own. It is, in every sense, the ultimate reminder of the impermanence of life and the world around us. And yet, since we all must die eventually, we have no choice but to face it, sooner or later.
For Katsuko, this time came when her doctor informed her that her cancer had returned. She was first diagnosed years earlier, but an operation seemed to have removed it well enough that she hadn’t expected it to come back. Sadly, this turned out to not be the case. The title of this documentary about her final years, -1287, refers to the 1,287 days that passed between the re-diagnosis of her doctor and the day of her final departure.
This was not a planned film on the part of the director, Ian Thomas Ash (who won the Nippon Visions award two years ago with his previous film, A2-B-C). As he explained to us in a Q&A session after the screening, he had known and been good friends with Katsuko for some years prior to this, ever since she had become one of his English students. After she informed him that she was once again sick and would definitely die within a few years, he began to film her intermittently and do some small “interviews” with her, but at first he only intended for these recordings to be for his own personal recollections. It was only later on that the possibility of a film about her began to take shape in his mind.
It is at least partially because of this that -1287 does not at all resemble or match most people’s expectations of what a typical biographical documentary should look like. There is no structured or detailed run-through of Katsuko’s childhood, of the highs and lows of her marriage, of what sort of work or adventures she had (or wanted to have), or of what her children did and are doing now- in fact, with the brief exception of her doctor, no one else in her life, family, friend, or otherwise, is seen or heard from. She talks occasionally about things she regretted, or that made her happy, but it’s just pieces. What we get instead are a series of moments, most of them clustered within the last 6 months of her life. Nothing more, nothing less, just moments of a person at the end of her road in this particular life.
This is, of course, a direct result of how the footage in the film came into being- not through the intent of creating a narrative or capturing a particular message, but simply through the desire of the director to claim a few, small moments of a dear friend’s life for memory’s sake. He certainly could have tried to retroactively interview friends and family, or do his own narrations about what he knew of Katsuko’s earlier life. Doing so could certainly have told the audience more facts about the women they see on-screen, but it would have drawn away from the real focus of the film, which is simply to present Katsuko as she was, and not some all-encompassing picture of her. It would have standardized what is, in the end, a very powerful example of intensely personal filmmaking.
The straightforward presentation of these moments leading to Katsuko’s death is broken only at the very end, right before we see her body after her passing. We jump back to one of the first conversations Ian had with her, one where she admitted her unhappiness in her marriage, and her occasional regrets at not having had the chance to leave her husband after her children’s births to find someone she could have truly been in love with. She is not bitter, or angry, or resentful, or sad, merely thoughtful and direct. When Ian is finished with his questions, she comments on how good it felt to be openly honest about such personal matters for once. And then says, and here I am translating very roughly from memory, “That’s all over now.” She’s clearly referring to that day’s filming session, but by taking this single scene out of the timeline and placing it at the end, Ian has given it a quiet symbolism of its own- it’s as if Katsuko is looking back and commenting on the entirety of her life, at peace with the fact that it is soon going to end. In the next scene, she is dead, and lying in state.
As powerful and moving as it is, this is not necessarily a film for everyone. Its atypical structure and the occasionally wandering nature of the conversations shown may bore or frustrate some accustomed to only seeing films or documentaries with “points” to be made. And the topic of death, especially the slow, wasting kind of a sick family member, is a subject too sensitive for some to see so directly and without embellishment. But those who can open themselves to the film, and to the small, tucked-away nuggets of wisdom to be found in what Katsuko has to say, will walk away with a lot to think about and wonder at. I know that was certainly the case at my screening. This movie went on to win the Nippon Visions Audience Award, one of two awards decided by audience ratings, and when it was announced I was not in the least bit surprised. -1287 is a wonderful piece of documentary filmmaking, beautiful in the singularity of its subject and its purpose, and was one of the best films I had the pleasure of seeing at Nippon 2015.