Milk White (2004)
Nicholas Driscoll
April 4, 2008
Note: review may contain spoilers

After returning to my apartment one evening after finishing up another long day of babysitting the great gaggle of giggling girls known as my students in Japan, I semi-excitedly sat down in front of my movie-viewing apparatus with another Toho movie that I knew nothing about. Gege, or Milk White, as it is known by its international English title, was the film, which I later learned was directed by the Itsumichi Isomura who also directed the superior Give It All. I was anticipating another Japanese romantic tearjerker, most likely climaxing with the tragic cliche of the cute female passing away, and our already over-emotional male lead spouting a shower of face-clenching tears.

I started the DVD a-spinning away. The plot leisurely made its way in, and—yep, there's the couple, separated by thousands of miles because of her research. He's an elementary school teacher and loves those kids—what a tender guy, worthy of a thousand women's sighs. Blah, blah, mediocrity. Then, BAM. Something happened in the story, and for the first time in my life I was determined to buy a film that I didn't really enjoy, that was actually pretty boring, that had an unlikable lead male and the narrative speed of a slower-than-average after-school special.

And it was all for one reason: to watch it with my brother.

To understand why this movie was so significant to me, one has to understand a little bit about my family. Years ago, during that tumultuous period of torturous confusion known as high school, my brother, in the midst of attempting to complete his driver's education course, suddenly and unexplainably began to lose his sight. His vision was obscured by hundreds of tiny floaters, pieces of physical matter that seemingly levitated through the vitreous humor of his eyes and blurred the world outside. Now, floaters are fairly common—many people have them, and they have numerous causes—but my brother had them in such a volume that he was declared legally blind, and after an anxiety-rich field of inconclusive tests and examinations, it was declared that he had the extremely rare (in America) auto-immune disease called Behçet's syndrome. This was especially remarkable in one so young as my brother was—as we learned, Behçet's usually strikes those who are older. The diagnosis could come only after testing for every other possible disease that might be causing the distinct symptoms; there was no test that could directly detect the Behçet's aberration. It wasn't like a virus, or malignant bacteria that could be destroyed through antibiotics—it was the body itself turning its formidable self-defenses against its own flesh and blood. Though there was much worry, confusion, and prayer from us (his family), my brother was subjected to a liberal dose of daily immune-system suppressants that rendered him (theoretically) more susceptible to other forms of disease, but stopped his body from self-destructing. Now he can see just fine, with about 20/20 vision, and doesn't even need glasses; as for his general health, he probably gets sick less often than I do. After a long period of heart-yanking unknowns, by God's grace he can live like a normal man—with lots of pills.

My brother's problem made for a very dramatic time in our lives. The disease itself, on the other hand, naturally enough due to its obscurity, never gains much national attention in the USA, and I never figured I would see a movie with Behçet's as a prominent plot element. Then again, as we were learning about the disease, one doctor made mention of how Behçet's was more common among the Japanese...

In the story of Milk White, Takayuki Tanaka (played by Takao Osawa, popular from that same year's Crying Out Love, in the Center of the World, and Ryuhei Kitamura's horror fantasy Sky High from 2003) is the school teacher, popular among his students, and engaged to the incredibly kind Yoko (Yuriko Ishida, the voice of San in 1997's Princess Mononoke, and the female lead from 2002's Yomigaeri: Resurrection), who is off in Mongolia for her studies. Everything in the universe seems set to hand Takayuki a perfectly happy life, but a demented dream followed by a bizarre white-sky-like flash before his eyes and something that looks like a seizure casts our protagonist's future in doubt. Inspecting himself in the mirror soon afterwards, he discovers a strange half-moon-shaped block of white in his iris. A quick visit to a doctor friend, and Takayuki is diagnosed with Behçet's, based on some preliminary examinations and superficial symptoms. Pretty soon, Takayuki is forced to quit his job and move back home with his elderly mother in Nagasaki as he hides the nature of his tragedy from all those close to him, and faces what appears to be a terrifying inevitability of complete blindness brought on by his mysterious disease.

The plot, as mentioned before, is quite slow-moving. There isn't a lot of excitement throughout as Takayuki struggles with the despair of his disease and what it means for his life, and how it will affect his relationships with those close to him. What would have been an excellent opportunity to educate movie viewers about the nature of this unique disease, however, is mostly squandered for what is meant to be dramatic effect. Very little information about the malady is provided; I don't believe the film even touches on the fact that Behçet's is an auto-immune disorder. The symptoms of the disease are characterized strangely as well, appearing as a series of painful-looking attacks wherein the victim briefly loses all sight to a wave of blooming light, which somehow leads to a vague deterioration in his eyes, his sight becoming a blurry haze, like the world is enveloped in fog. According to my brother, there is a symptom of Behçet's in which flashing lights, like lightning, occur, but this is an indication of the retina tearing and is not accompanied by the dramatic pain depicted here. Descriptions of what precisely is going on in Takayuki's eyes are kept to a bare minimum, and other symptoms such as painful mouth and genital sores are barely touched upon. Nevertheless, the light sensitivity and eye pain of uveitis is depicted, and it's hard to fault the filmmakers too much for their representation of the symptoms, especially considering the wide variety of ways in which Behçet's can manifest itself. Milk White, however, simplifies things considerably, playing the disease essentially as a hopeless sentence to eventual blindness—which, as I understand it, is a rather rare outcome of the rare disease, what with current medicines available.

Not that a bit of creative license is necessarily a bad thing. Movies are notorious for exaggerating the facts, usually in service of pumping up the plot for audience approval. In a story like this, though, the characters and our sympathy for them must carry the movie, and unfortunately our heroes aren't fleshed out enough to have the strength to carry much.

Takayuki, being the center of the story, is surprisingly unlikable in the face of adversity. Osawa is a capable actor, if somewhat bland, but here the story dictates his character as something of an uncommunicative doormat. After finding out about his disease, Takayuki essentially gives up everything without even searching out treatments or going to experts in the field. The most he does is visit another man blinded by Behçet's (played by Akira Emoto, who I have eternally typecast in my mind as a pervert due to his roles in Drugstore Girl and 2001's Waterboys). Takayuki also refuses to tell his mother or even his fiancé about his disease, trying to break off his future marriage and hide from all his problems. Yuriko Oshida's Yoko is much more likable as his spurned girlfriend, but her character is even shallower than Takayuki's, playing more as a perfect ideal as a faithful partner and nigh unflappable support to the protagonist's emotional tidal waves. Though she delivers a warm, earnest performance, it is hard to understand why she stands by this unfortunate man.

These themes of acceptance (rather than fighting the disease) are likely linked to the Zen Buddhist themes that introduce themselves roughly halfway into the feature when Takayuki visits a local aged Buddhist priest, who is positioned as the iconic guru and bestower of wisdom. The Japanese title of the film, Gege, is explained as the name given to the conclusion of a specific period wherein Buddhist monks seclude themselves during spring in order not to trample newly grown life and to engage in deep contemplation. Gege, then, means "summer's release," or when the monks' term of meditation is concluded and they return to the normal strictures of their religious lives. Thus we are to understand that Takayuki is going through a similar period in his life while he learns to accept his new circumstances. Nevertheless, to this viewer, he comes across as a self-centered punk, which is likely the point until he matures into a more sublime state of acceptance.

The music doesn't make the movie any more memorable; most of the score is composed of melancholy and infrequent piano and violin pieces that might prove pleasant background music on a rainy day, but aren't very interesting beyond the context of the film.

I don't really dislike Milk White. I'm thankful for the chance to watch the film with my brother, who seemed to appreciate it even for all its faults. It provided me with an opportunity to connect with him on a level we don't often touch upon. However, from the uninteresting characters to the dumb truncated diagnoses to the sometimes arthritic pacing, Milk White is pure vanilla—acceptable, unremarkable, and probably better mixed with more full-bodied ingredients.