As hushed and elusive as the disease of depression and the Japanese stigma surrounding it, “Does Your Soul Have a Cold?” is “Thumbsucker” director Mike Mills’ emotionally remote exploration of how an American pharmaceutical company’s use of the eponymous line in an Asian ad campaign has led to a new generation of Tokyo pill-poppers. Too fragile for mainstream arthouse play — “Sicko” this ain’t — pic’s immediate prognosis is healthy fest life and tube longevity in the wake of as-yet-unscheduled IFC preem.
Like “Thumbsucker,” “Soul” is concerned with the deleterious effects of mood-managing drugs on vulnerable, confused and conflicted people — though less so with the shadowy corporate maneuvers behind the availability of such medications. Per filmmakers, depression (and suicide) ran rampant in Japan during the 1990s, with no precise word for the condition until “utsu” was minted late in the decade.
Then, using the soothing tagline “Please don’t suffer any longer,” U.S. company GlaxoSmithKline began marketing a broad range of antidepressants that fed into one sufferer’s opinion that “anything from America is good.”
Mills is far less interested in exploring this chain of events than he is in observing the end result: five sufferers who’ve bought into a promise of relief that has proven, in their cases, frustratingly elusive. Taketoshi tempers his drugs with art therapy, while Kayoko desperately holds on to her 9-to-5 regime at a T-shirt printing plant. Mika, ironically, delivers medical samples, while computer programmer Daisuke medicates himself from a large cardboard box of pills in the sea of trash and clutter of his cramped flat. Seemingly most at risk is Ken, whose standard dress of hot pants and high heels fits well with his hobby as trussed-up slave in live bondage shows.
Responding in Japanese to offscreen questions posed in English, they all speak of their inner demons, dashed dreams and brave hopes. “Is this just who I am,” Kayoko wonders, “or am I like this because I’m sick?” Later, the telling admission: “I’m not fighting the depression, I’m fighting the antidepressants.” Probing stuff, though less of their quiet suffering and more of the noisy big picture could have given auds a keener rooting interest in their fates.
Capturing a Tokyo at once brooding and deserted and direly oppressive, luminous widescreen vid lensing in close quarters fits snugly with helmer’s respect for the work of Yasujiro Ozu and Frederick Wiseman. Completing the stylistic lineage, Mills’ docu production company is named after Gena Rowlands’ character in John Cassavetes’ “A Woman Under the Influence.”