Takashi and Yuriko are like any other young couple. He is a high school teacher, she takes care of the household chores and holds a job on the side transcribing audio recordings for a publishing house. Their marriage follows the traditional Japanese model: Yuriko has given up a promising career as a concert pianist and still laments the decision, despite having embraced the life of a housewife, while Takashi stays out until very late every day, spending his time after work with his colleagues rather than with his wife. Though dinners regularly go cold on him and the look on the face of his wife is far from happy, Takashi remains oblivious to the abandonment he inflicts on Yuriko.
As a result, he fails to notice the gradual changes in his wife's personality. Yuriko has regularly been leaving the house on uncharacteristic walks, claiming she must "go on patrol" to protect the neighbourhood from a conspiracy by "the organisation" (an idea later swiped by Kiyoshi Kurosawa for Cure, 1997). When he realises his wife might suffer from mental illness, Takashi is at a loss, feeling confused and above all ashamed. He stealthily visits the psychology section of a bookstore to read up on schizophrenia and carefully hides the book he buys there from his colleagues. When on one of her patrols Yuriko steals a car and can nary prevent killing herself and her husband, he finally takes her to a hospital, where she is indeed diagnosed with schizophrenia.
Though it might be argued that the point Makoto Shinozaki tries to make is that the male-dominated society of Japan is in itself an organisation intent on conspiring against women like Yuriko, the director doesn't condemn the situation. Rather, he presents it as a given, showing the consequences of it in order for the audience to draw their own conclusions (an approach also employed in his next fiction film Not Forgotten / Wasurerarenu Hitobito, 2000). Even for the character of Takashi, he is surprisingly mild. Takashi is presented as a man who could perhaps be blamed for many things, but not for not loving his wife. He is just a product of the society he lives in and when circumstances call for it, he does manage to break with what is imposed on him and let himself be guided by his love for Yuriko.
Shinozaki's debut Okaeri (the traditional greeting to welcome someone home) is shot in static, fixed shots. Though the director has cited the reason for this as being time and cost (he privately financed the film and shot it on leftover film stock from a production by Swiss director Daniel Schmid), this method proves to be very effective in the context of the film. Combining with the pale lighting and subdued colour scheme, it presents an image of suburban life which is rather downbeat and cold, serving well to intensify the circumstances of Yuriko's mental deterioriation.
This method of shooting also allows the actors a lot of room for excellent, semi-improvisational performances. One lengthy sequence in particular stands out, in which Yuriko locks herself in the bathroom and Takashi takes vigil outside the door, trying his best to comfort her with his voice and words. This scene is representative for the tone of the entire film, which treats the subject of mental illness with an earnest and care rarely seen in Japanese films (another good example being George Matsuoka's Acacia Walk / Akashia No Michi, 2001). Its ambivalent open ending adheres to this, refusing to give a clear-cut solution or take the easy route by presenting a happy end.
Truthful, touching and thoroughly well-made, Okaeri deservedly won a slew of prizes at film festivals around the world, launching former cinema projectionist and film journalist Shinozaki into the vanguard of Japan's young filmmakers.