A Step Forward (Japan, 2019)

Despite the growing discourse surrounding suicide, very few documentary films have approached the topic in the same way as Atsushi Kasezawa’s A Step Forward does. The film tries to balance out suicide as a phenomenon and the people involved while looking at it beyond personal motivations. The result is kind of a cartography tracing roads and spaces, almost literally following steps taken by the people involved to get to that moment. Ironically, the title A Step Forward might mean two things, depending on where one is standing.

The step forward might be the step away from death. The film follows Yoichi Fujiyabu, the pastor from the church where the local suicide line in Wakayama prefecture in the western regions of Japan is being routed. Pastor Fujiyabu also brings the task upon himself to gate-keep Sandanbeki cliff, a popular suicide spot in their area from those who are trying to jump off it. According to him, the “rescues” started a long time ago, with an estimated 900 people being helped by Fujiyabu and the church over the years. Some of those he rescued began working at the Machinaka Restaurant – operated as a suicide-survivor support and managed by Fujiyabu.

The documentary does not find Fujiyabu at his best. In one scene, he’s seen in this troubled state, worrying for the woman he rescued one night, as seen at the opening of the film, but was not able to convince to stay at the church. There are also scenes where he becomes irritated in one-on-one talks with some Machinaka employees regarding financial management and career plans after their stay at the church. Highlighted in the film are his conversations with Mori, one of the church’s rescues who began working at Machinaka after leaving his work in a hospital. Towards the end of the film, Mori is seen working at the restaurant, while Fujiyabu seems to be hopeful about Mori’s current disposition.

The step forward might be a step towards death. There’s quite a long scene in the middle of the documentary wherein Mori recollects his attempt to jump off the Sandanbeki cliff. Mori reflects on his memory of that moment: what was he thinking and what made him take a step back. Later on, Mori reflects on the dread he felt over his problem in socialization, something which gets him in trouble with his current employer.

There seems quite a similarity on the stories of survivors in the documentary. The first survivor, interviewed early on, reflects almost the same socio-economic reason for suicide attempt. This interviewee’s insight is the most insightful: he lost his sense of hope over a failing relationship and the collapse of the Lehman brothers’ firm. This interview, being first in the film, is able to frame all the aspects of the documentary in two ways. First, it captures suicide as a social phenomenon unlike the way popular psychology frame it as an incomprehensible hormonal whim. Second, it makes it possible to grasp the function of the Machiyaka restaurant not just as a way for survivors to get their sense of life back, but to reintegrate them to the field of work.

Fujiyabu’s church and the Machiyaka’s methods of course has its limits. Fujiyabu being the representative of both in the documentary, presents these limits through the limits of him as a personality: his irritability, impatience and also his hopeful attitude towards the survivors. These limits are supported by his wife, Ayumi, who provides a more discerning approach to the predicaments of the church and restaurant. But there’s only so much they can do. Towards the end of the film, the general conditions which produced the survivors’ drive towards suicide have still not changed. Mori failed to fight this drive. Fujiyabu, again exposed with his weakness, acknowledges the limits of what they can and cannot do. He continues to struggle and continues his work as the gatekeeper of the cliff.

A Step Forward may appear to end on a cynical note. Despite its good intentions and knowing the vulnerability of the film’s subjects, a certain distance is maintained. The film never crosses the line to intrude on the personal matters of either Fujiyabu or Mori. Whether or not they should have done something to prevent another incident happen is a different concern. However, the way it traces something as intimate and sensitive as suicide might be a step forward too, as it takes us towards a broader understanding of suicide as a social phenomenon.

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