Directed by Shunji Iwai. 1996.

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In Picnic, director Shunji Iwai has crafted a short film of visual beauty and lyric poetry. Three young inmates at a mental institution walk along a wall connecting the hospital to the outside world and simply keep going, perhaps a metaphor for the Jungian idea of the long journey back to the genuine self. As they travel on a ledge between the ground and the sky, each in their own way attempts to liberate themselves from their inauthenticity and recapture the experience of wholeness. The inmates are Coco, played by Chara, a Japanese pop singer who would later star in Iwai’s Swallowtail Butterfly, Tsumuji, performed by Tadanobu Asano, now the husband of Chara, and Satoru (Koichi Hashizumi).  

The first twenty minutes are set inside the institution. A reluctant Chara is delivered to the hospital by her parents and is subject to abuse and mistreatment by a female attendant. Tsumuji has murdered one of his teachers who was abusing him and sees the dead man’s ghost before him in a very disturbing sequence. It is not clear why Satoru is there but we see scenes of him masturbating excessively. As the three find a common bond, they set out on their journey, first encountering a young choir at a Christian church singing an otherworldly hymn. They are befriended by the priest who gives them a bible even though Tsumiji says he is a non-believer.  

When the boy reads the publication date, however, he concludes that will be the day the world will end and the three decide to have a picnic at the nearby lighthouse to wait for the fateful moment. As they prepare to witness the world’s end, they open up to each other with a childlike innocence and acknowledge their wrongdoing. Elizabeth Lesser says, “The price for staying heart blind is a life unlived”. The Dalai Lama has gone as far as saying that “the tendency to avoid problems and the emotional suffering inherent in them is the primary basis of all mental illness”. As they talk to each other and begin to make connection, they become real people not “mental patients”.  

While the film’s meaning may be different to each viewer, to me it is saying that we should live our life as if the world will end tomorrow, be in touch with the beauty of each moment, and acknowledge the actions in our life that may have harmed others. Whatever the message, Picnic is a stunning achievement, each scene capable of standing alone as a unique work of art. In spite of a sadness that reminded me of my own dark moods of adolescence, it left me with a feeling of transcendence. 


Howard Schumann
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