Since I haven’t read David Mitchell’s translation of Naoki Hagishida’s 2007 memoir of autism I can’t rightly say how faithful Jerry Rothwell’s semi-documentary movie version is, though much of the voiceover narration, by Jordan O’Donegan, is taken straight from the book. Higashida was a nonverbal autistic Japanese child, and he reportedly wrote the book when he was only 13. Rothwell makes it seem as if much of the book was written in an impressionistic style, and the visual and aural decisions often try to convey this style with synthesized sounds and odd camera angles. Naturally, trying to replicate what an autistic child feels in a medium with its own technical limitations has its problems and often the movie seems intent on aestheticizing the autistic experience, if such a thing is possible; and yet the movie is often very powerful in spite of these questionable ambitions.
Higashida’s own experiences are illustrated with a Japanese-British autistic boy (Jim Fujiwara), but Rothwell also brings in the stories of five other mostly nonverbal autistic teens from various corners of the world. Generally, these stories elaborate on the frustrations that autistic youths go through trying to navigate a world that relies on clear communication of feelings and intentions. A girl from India can only really express herself through drawings, and eventually the empathy that she elicits with those drawings result in an art show. A boy and girl from Virginia use their friendship to show non-autistic acquaintances how to communicate feelings that only they feel. In the most disturbing sequence, autistic individuals in Sierra Leone are ostracized as evil beings, forcing them either underground or away from people in general. What Rothwell really wants to put across, and what Higashida’s book implicitly states, is that autism, as explained by its more clinical term “the spectrum,” is a varied and nuanced condition that requires not just empathy but acceptance. What Higashida accomplished with his book is that he showed that autistic children were no different from other children in terms of how they feel about the world. There was no diminution of what we would call intelligence, just a different means of processing stimuli and making sense of it. Ben, one of the Virginia teens, even expresses to his teacher the idea that he feels his human rights have been violated by conventional education structures.
This more straightforward documentary approach actually does a better job of giving the viewer a feeling for autism than does the pointedly “poetic” passages that replicate the book and which often feel obligatory. The Reason I Jump was a worldwide bestseller, and it’s the reason Rothwell made the movie, but he could have produced a more potent one had he relied more openly on finding stories other than Higashida’s.
In English and some German. Now playing in Tokyo at Kadokawa Cinema Yurakucho (03-6268-0015), Shinjuku Piccadilly (050-6861-3011).
The Reason I Jump home page in Japanese
photo (c) 2020 The Reason I Jump Limited, Vulcan Productions, Inc. The British Film Institute