Much of this documentary’s non-stylistic impact depends on its historical and cultural context. In 1970s Japan, so far as I can gather, you didn’t let disabled people leave the house. Yokota seems to hardly ever be in the house, so packed is his schedule with handing out leaflets, giving street poetry readings, crossing intersections on his knees with agonizing slowness and shouting laboriously into megaphones. He’s something of a proto-disability activist, alongside a small, ragtag coterie of other CP sufferers. (One member, an enthusiastic photographer, comes off as potentially more interesting than Yokota, though perhaps only because he gets less face time.)
Yokota’s exhibitionistic tendencies dovetail well with Hara’s inclination to spark the drama by hand before capturing it with the camera. This intersection culminates in a shot where Yokota sits naked in the middle of a road. Hara has a history of art-based promotion of the marginal — he called his early photo exhibition on the disabled “Don’t Make Fun of Them” — but if Goodbye CP delivers a message, it’s, “Look upon this! Look upon this!” Throughout the film, Yokota has a big problem keeping his oversized glasses on his face — he could really use one of those foam rubber arm-connecting straps that were popular in the nineties — and it ends with a shot of least five minutes where repeatedly drops them and struggles to pick them up again. His voiceover expresses a newfound utter hopelessness for his own cause.
I’m sure people have labeled the movie “hard to watch” for any number of reasons: the subject matter, the unceasing air of tension, the harsh lighting contrasts, the lips that don’t match the words. I’d say it draws its power from its simplicity. Hara mostly just follows Yokota around in his day-to-day and, like any documentarian worth his salt, lets things develop as they may. In the sequence everybody talks about, Hara shoots a domestic argument between Yokota and his also somehow disabled wife — an argument about whether Hara’s presence is welcome at all — as their non-disabled kid darts to and fro, laughing. I can confidently name few other filmmakers who would have the nerve to get it all on film without flinching. If one skill in particular defines Hara, it’s that, once he finds one fascinating person, he never. Turns. The. Camera. Off.