I was 21 years when I wrote this song, I’m 22 now but I won’t be for long…the leaves that are green are turning to brown for the heroine of Keiko Desu Kedo (桂子ですけど, “I am Keiko”). Approaching her 22nd birthday and with the recent death of her father ever present in her mind, she’s begun to feel the passage of time even more keenly. She doesn’t want to miss out on or forget anything so she’s going to share with us the last three weeks of her 21st year on Earth.
The first image we see of Keiko has her looking directly at us, holding our gaze while a Rothko-esque backdrop and ambient sounds of children arguing and birds singing provide our only context. After a few minutes she looks away, shyly, before resuming contact with a sad smile. Eventually a single tear courses down her cheek and she looks away again. We become her audience as she narrates her existence to us, filled with moments of everyday tedium – cleaning, sitting in silence and gazing out of windows. As the time begins to run out, she moves on to more direct forms of communication including a daily news broadcast where she relates the fact that once again it has been a slow news day in the land of Keiko. The time passes, Keiko grows older, as we all do, nothing changes, nothing stays the same.
This relatively early effort from Sono has a very definite French new wave influence with a little Fassbinder thrown in to boot. Much of the film takes the form of still frames accompanied by Keiko’s voice over which often consists of her counting out loops of 60s to aurally honour each passing second. Keiko lives in an oddly colourful, childlike world in her bright red apartment which has bright yellow furniture though the rest of her existence is fairly empty. As she tells us at the beginning, the only things in this apartment are herself and the bones of her father. As if to bear witness to the French new wave theme, she even shows us some other relics of the life she’s lost in the form of a packet of her father’s Gauloises cigarettes inside their unopened and equally colourful light blue box.
In a touch of Godardian mischief, Sono breaks the film into mini chapters with the help of frequent colour cards bearing the names of the days of the week (notably Keiko skips a day here and there or elides two days into one with another colour card simply stating the hour). It seems as if Keiko is eager to pass the time, she will be “reborn” the moment she crosses over into year 22 – leaving this grief filled coda behind her. Yet the time passes slowly, tediously spent in inconsequential pursuits. Actress Keiko Suzuki excels in the difficult task of playing the identically named Keiko, imbuing her depression filled voice overs with a degree of melancholy warmth. She seems to want to connect with us, staring up at us after scribbling out the words “I am” written on an otherwise blank piece of of paper with her father’s fountain pen. She reaches out to us, but we are powerless to respond, all we can do for her is to listen and bear witness to these final three weeks of her soon to be former life.
In the light of Sono’s later career, Keiko Desu Kedo may seem like a strange entry in his back catalogue. Tightly focusing on one young woman as she comes to terms with grief and the passage of time, Keiko Desu Kedo is an exercise in minimalism from a man later known for his cinematic excesses. Yet, there is excess here too in the stylisation of Keiko’s world, her brightly coloured living environment and various “disguises” she adopts in her news reader persona. Tellingly, in her final broadcast Keiko appears as herself but has nothing to say to us, once again looking directly into the camera with moistened eyes, full of loneliness. Presumably at the end of the film as she skips off away from her apartment trash bag in hand and counting down the seconds, she no longer needs us and all that remains is for her to read the credits of her confessional video diary, thereby bidding adieu to her old self via this strange obituary pausing only to thank us as the lights go out.