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The Aesthetics of Grief in Goodbye, Eri

Tatsuki Fujimoto is a connoisseur of what you might call “dirtbag compassion.” Though his works explore complex and difficult topics with elevated nuance, his perspective always hangs near the muck – dicks getting kicked, toilet jokes, unrepentant, gleeful acts of deviance and perversion. There’s an honesty in that; rather than maintaining the soapy, reverent tone often employed for difficult topics, he talks about grief and hunger and oppression in the way they are experienced, in the context of our messy lives and allegedly “incorrect” emotional responses. His work is essentially the opposite of a Very Special Episode, wherein the harsh aspects of life are framed in slow motion and soft lighting, accompanied by a pensive indie rock ballad. Life is rarely so tonally accommodating – and as imperfect, ever-struggling human beings, our reactions to life’s troubles are rarely the ones you see on television.

“Goodbye, Eri” opens with a premise that’s ripe for a Very Special Episode. For his twelfth birthday, Yuta receives a smartphone with a built-in camera, as well as a request from his mother: please document her days as her illness progresses, thus ensuring some record of her life will outlive her passing. Such a conceit could easily furnish a fundamentally sentimental, feel-good narrative about what our loved ones leave behind, but there is no trace of sentimentality in Fujimoto’s dialogue. “You know I could die from my illness. How does that make you feel,” his mother asks, to which Yuta responds “I don’t wanna talk about that on my birthday.” Both the bluntness of his mother and the evasion of Yuta feel true-to-life, unvarnished, legitimately painful. How could a twelve-year-old be asked to process his mother’s approaching death? It’s impossible – pure fantasy, the kind of story we tell simply to coddle our audience, not to articulate anyone’s earnest, felt experience.

Fujimoto has no patience for such cinematic sentimentality, but he does respect the inherent power of the camera’s eye. Chainsaw Man is frequently elevated by its emotionally charged paneling, and Goodbye, Eri’s smartphone conceit is no less defining. Trapped behind the camera’s frame, we see life as Yuta sees it, a blunt recollection of happy moments, sad moments, a stray cat he found. Our emotions are not stable states – we are inherently flighty creatures, and Fujimoto is dedicated to honoring that truth in his art. In spite of that, across Yuta’s disparate videos, a clear theme emerges. “I’m keeping watch in case she dies in her sleep,” he at one point informs us, articulating his fear through his dedication to not missing a single moment. We see his desperation in the specificity of his subjects; a snatched sequence of his father crying, a long held shot on their family toothbrushes. Even this moment is precious; even this experience will fade, as that superfluous third toothbrush is eventually discarded.

Eventually, we learn that this procession of snatched moments is not just an articulation of Yuta’s feelings – it is Yuta’s film about his feelings, an edited montage he actually presents to his school. This revelation comes abruptly, the “film” concluding on a moment of defiantly unsentimental irreverence. Rather than saying goodbye to his mother, Yuta runs from the hospital, queuing a series of explosions inspiring the film’s title, “Dead Explosion Mother.” It’s blunt, it’s disrespectful, and it’s quite possibly the only sequence that reflects Yuta’s actual feelings about his mother’s passing, and the cruel project she assigned him.

The audience’s reaction is, predictably, not positive. Yuta is called to answer for his unsentimental conclusion, informed he’s supposed to feel a certain way about his mother’s death, that he should feel bad for treating her so callously. The audience is, apparently, the authority on Yuta’s emotional response; though every frame prior glimmered with the fatalism and numbness of reckoning with a premature death, Yuta’s rebellious conclusion is an unacceptable expression of his contradictory emotions. “Death Explosion Mother” is a cry from the heart, and having it be so harshly mocked prompts Yuta to make one final project: a documentation of his own suicide, as he leaps from the hospital roof to punish the haters. Death is not sacred; it is omnipresent, and if we can’t learn to laugh at it, we likely also can’t learn to live with it.

Standing on the precipice, camera wobbling in his hands, the frame is interrupted by an intruding question – “are you gonna jump?” The camera shifts, and then falls away entirely. For the first time since the reveal of Yuta’s movie screening, Yuta’s camera no longer mediates our experience. We see the same girl Yuta does, Eri in full frame, the one person who apparently enjoyed his film. Creating art can be a way of cushioning ourselves, of shielding ourselves from the pain of the world – if you’re taking in everything as “material,” you’re less affected by it in an immediate, personal sense. But with Eri’s blunt question, Yuta is immediately stranded in reality. If honest, shared truth can be reached, it is perhaps only possible through Eri’s absence of coddling, and Yuta’s willingness to put down the camera.

This negotiation of the cinematically mediated and the “authentic” is a persistent obsession for Fujimoto, whether articulated through “Dead Explosion Mother” or Chainsaw Man’s Makima and Denji visiting the movies. Though Fujimoto idolizes authenticity, he also clearly sees something “authentic” in the shared yet mediated experience of cinema, and the formal trickery employed by skillful filmmakers. While Eri admits to loving the sincerity of Yuta’s film, her first response to learning he is the director is to drag him off for film screenings, intent on bolstering his understanding of cinematic craft. The act of watching and appreciating movies together seems almost sacred; it is a way of contextualizing and processing the world, a truth more sincere than impartial reality, captured through art that truly speaks to us.

The things we are expected to feel about life never seem to resonate with Fujimoto’s understanding of grief, work, capitalism, love. To find any personal understanding, he must seek abrasive and irreverent art, and find the people who appreciate it alongside him. And so, whether it’s Chainsaw Man or Goodbye, Eri, the moments of characters connecting through film are actually the most intimate – you are not just sharing your body, you are sharing what you love, how you see the world.

Given the way Fujimoto relates to cinema, it is little surprise that he both adores formal craft and despises narrative convention. Eri’s response to “Dead Explosion Mother” embodies this seeming contradiction; while everyone else shamed him for daring to process his emotions this way, Eri appreciates his manic approach, the vitality of his camerawork, the conflation of grief and bitterness that inspired his ending. Eri’s complaint is not with his concept, but with his craft;  he had something meaningful and fundamental to express, but his lack of formal training prevented that meaning from transmitting to anyone but this fellow connoisseur of cinematic emotion. This is how Fujimoto reconciles formal training and sincere expression: it is only through training your eye via countless films that you can hope to express your earnest feelings not just for your own satisfaction, but in a way that will resonate with others.

“I only find about one in ten movies interesting, but I’ve had that one movie change my life,” Makima admits in Chainsaw Man. Fujimoto seems to believe the opposite is also true: that even if only one person understands your art, that can be enough to sustain you. Eri and Yuta thus set to work on a second film, Eri expressing her feelings directly to the shutter, Yuta’s emotions clear in the lingering camera’s eye. His thoughts are expressed plainly, incidentally, like through his sudden recognition of the beauty of the stars. Both Fujimoto and Yuta refuse to romanticize either their suffering or their happiness; such rhetorical tricks are the tools of the enemy, society’s methods of limiting our responses and halting our complaints. Fujimoto is determined to be reckless and unchained and honest, and that ethos informs his blunt approach to such poignant human drama, his refusal to editorialize the feelings and experiences of his characters.

Yuta explains his conviction simply: as documenters of suffering, “it wouldn’t be fair if creators didn’t get hurt too.” And so we see him get hurt, in all the ways a camera can reveal. As Eri rejects yet another script proposal, we see both Yuta and his camera move back, his wounded emotions clear in his defensive posture. It is a conviction shared by Yuta and Fujimoto; though neither of them are the direct subjects of their stories, they are still embedded inescapably within those stories. Every choice of framing is a choice Fujimoto made, an expression of how he feels regarding what is happening. That is what Eri loved about Yuta’s film – the sincerity of his shooting, his clear love for his mother, his rebellion against this cruel directive to “capture every moment of her failing life.” That is all she wants from his next project – that same raw, unvarnished sincerity, except bolstered by a clearer understanding of cinematic form. After all, “don’t you trust Hollywood?”

So films are a route to true connection, but films are also liars, perpetual acts of motivated framing and historical revision. Does that make stories dishonest, or simply embellished, infused with our own untrustworthy ambitions? Yuta’s film made his mother beautiful – so beautiful that he was actually condemned for creating it, for creating such a beautiful lie and then sullying it with his own petty emotions. For as we learn, Yuta’s mother was not the woman he captured on film; she was in truth cruel and vain, a TV producer who loved her son only for his capacity to facilitate her own career. Was it wrong to create such a lie, even if he wanted his “memories of her to be beautiful”? The stories we tell are not just staid records, they are active choices – they are acts of worship, framing reality in such a way as to make the audience derive a coherent emotional experience from a cruel and contradictory world. And Fujimoto finds beauty in every aspect of that process – in the blunt chaos of life, in our desire to make it kinder, and in the tools of connection we’ve developed for telling stories, for creating the lives we wished we had lived.

Yuta’s production of “Goodbye, Eri” offers a similar lie – a lie of a girl who was without flaw, a muse who only brought light to the world. Is it contemptibly dishonest to edit our lives this way in order to elicit emotions from others? Isn’t that all storytelling, taking our thoughts and experiences and the stories that resonated with us, and forming of them a tale that connects with others? We could say that all storytellers are liars, or we could admit that we are all constantly embellishing and editing and rewriting, attempting to find coherent meaning in the discordant tides of our own lives. We can only hope that our own editors are kind to us – that all the people who’ve connected with us remember the good times, even if we don’t have a kindly documentarian to cut out the selfishness and highlight the beauty.

Eri’s only other friend is content with Yuta’s framing; Yuta himself is not. Though he earns the tearful audience that he and Eri sought, “Goodbye, Eri” as screened for his classmates is not just a lie about reality, it is a lie about Yuta’s own feelings. Life doesn’t end with a photo finish and glimmering sunset; life is messy and continuous and ever-shifting, as Yuta’s uncertain fortunes in the years after his film screening reveal. The general audience might accept such a conclusion, but Yuta cannot – and so the story continues, cataloging the ways Eri’s lingering presence impacts his adult life. Can he escape her specter? Would his story be better if he did? Better for a general audience, perhaps, but would it truly reach the other Yutas out there, those who see the world how Yuta sees it?

Perhaps that is why the messiness is essential. How do we learn to process life when all our stories are of coherent narratives and clean solutions, of challenges conquered and needs addressed? For Yuta, for Eri, and for Fujimoto, the role of storyteller is a sacred duty, and that duty must be respected through honesty, in all its contentious, defiant, ambiguous glory. And so Yuta at last expresses his truth, whether in a final revision or simply the camera of his mind’s eye. The ending of his last screening was universally relatable, but it wasn’t Yuta’s truth, nor Eri’s, nor was it true to Fujimoto. There is no sorrow without ugliness, no catharsis without confusion, and no conclusion that couldn’t be improved with a generous helping of explosions. Embrace cinematic artifice, pay no deference to reality, and hit your audience where it hurts – but always, always speak your truth.

This article was made possible by reader support. Thank you all for all that you do.

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