Despite a title that couldn’t be more off-putting if it tried, “Dying in a Hospital” is an edifying model of delicate restraint. Its poignant, coolly compassionate view of life and death in a big-city hospice ward deserves to be seen by anyone … well, mortal.
The docu-like feature opens with a medium-length lens fixed on an empty bed. Eventually, a feeble old man (Akira Yamanouchi) inhabits it, and film slowly draws in on his fading days. Other patients, in varying states of decline or revival, come and go, but the camera keeps its distance. Months pass in time-lapse fashion, and a young businessman (Masayuki Shionoya), who’s already been in for an operation, returns for a longer stay — long enough to view his stalwart wife’s emotional deterioration.
Most of the dialogue consists of the deceptively polite conversation between patients and nurses and doctors, doubly formal, since they’re Japanese. There are also v.o. diary entries and letters, usually from a mild-mannered doctor (the well-known Ittoku Kishibe) — the script is based on a doctor’s memoirs — but sometimes from other quarters. This quiet flow of language and almost opaque imagery is regularly punctuated by Fumi Itakura’s piquant music, accompanying vignettes snatched from everyday life. These lovely, fleeting moments (a trip to the zoo, children in sprinklers, assembling origami, etc.) are the fragments common to the failing lives that intersect in the hospital’s antiseptic wards.
Pic maintains its clean, fugue-and-variations quality until the very end, when a posthumous narrator goes over the top into pure emotion. But whether seen as austere or sentimental, this literally life-and-death saga will be a tough sell in any market, except the pubcasting one where it was born. “Dying” is also likely to live on in medical and educational circles, where its unblinking honesty — and subtly reassuring warmth — will be savored.