Nobuhiro Yamashita is, in this writer’s opinion, one of the best Japanese directors working today. Probably best known for the girl band high school comedy drama Linda, Linda, Linda, Yamashita has made gentle character studies infused with wry humour and occasional social comment a speciality. Tamako in Moratorium is a slight diversion in his career so far as it had a slightly unorthodox genesis beginning as a series of TV shorts intended as a vehicle for ex AKB48 star Atsuko Maeda (who also starred in Yamashita’s previous film, Drudgery Train). Its TV origins bring both an episodic structure plus a slightly different shooting style and aesthetic than we’ve previously seen from Yamashita yet given these constrained circumstances, he’s been able to craft yet another nuanced and charming character drama that is perhaps his quietest yet.
23 year old Tamako has returned home after graduating university but has failed to find a regular job and is content to have returned to the days of blissful adolescence where she rejects all adult responsibilities in favour of hanging out at home reading manga and playing video games while her father cooks, cleans and does her washing for her. We follow her through four seasons as various things change or don’t and really nothing much happens but that’s the beauty of the tale. Tamako has called a moratorium on being herself, as for when or why it might be lifted? Only time will tell.
It would be easy to read Tamako a symptomatic of a larger cultural malaise and a growing class of young people who have, quite literally, lost the will to live were it not for the fact that most of Tamako’s contemporaries seem to be doing OK (“seem” being the operative word seeing as one late scene in the film would suggest it’s not all as hunky-dory as it looks). We’re given plenty of possible reasons for Tamako’s lack of enthusiasm for life though no one great explanation for her refusal to engage. “Japan’s rubbish” she’s fond of shouting at the TV as if to blame her current lack of success on an entire nation, “No it isn’t” counters her dad “You are”. A fact which Tamako doesn’t seek to refute.
Her lack of self esteem also prevents her completing her current CV where she can’t come up with any personal hobbies or skills and ends by saying that she doesn’t quite feel herself right now, as if everyone’s just expected to play several different roles throughout a lifetime. A realisation which sees her set her sights on a rather improbable career opportunity which nevertheless cheers her father up and leads to her forming a slightly strange friendship with a young teenage boy. Indeed, Tamako avoids most of her old friends in town, preferring to stay at home out of sight, and only really communicates with her father (and then barely).
Her father by contrast, though perturbed and worried about what’s to become of this listless child who’s sinking like a stone, is nevertheless content to try and give her the space to figure out how to get herself out of this mess that seems to be of her own making. However, paradoxically, this may actually be the exact opposite of what she wants and it’s only when the bond with her father looks as if it’s about to be disrupted that something begins to reawaken inside Tamako’s soul. Like an odd subversion of Ozu’s Late Spring, father and daughter must one day part – it is the natural way of things after all, but this time it feels like a much more positive thing.
Tamako in Moratorium began on TV and unsurprisingly has a televisual quality that’s difficult to escape from. Shot with a largely static camera and shallow depth of field, it also feels oddly formalist relying as it does on classical compositions and close-ups with the added effect of making the world seem claustrophobic, as if some invisible pressure is pressing down on Tamako and keeping her sleepily imprisoned within the frame. Aesthetically, the film has a much more HD video look than Yamashita’s other work with a hyperreal sharpness that paradoxically makes everything look unreal and is occasionally distracting but not detrimentally so.
“The feelings just naturally disappeared”. Sometimes it’s like that, no grand event or epiphany just a gradual process of things working themselves out, almost unseen in the background. Has the moratorium been lifted by the end? Not sure, but something has changed, shifted into gear. Uneventful on the surface, Tamako in Moratorium is a wry and nuanced character study that is full of incidental details begging to be unpacked and reassembled by the attentive viewer and is another well crafted effort from Yamashita.