This area has a weird magnetic field, claims one of the central characters in Takuro Nakamura’s West North West (西北西, Seihokusei), it’ll throw you off course. Barriers to love both cultural and psychological present themselves with almost gleeful melancholy in this indie exploration of directionless youth in modern day Tokyo. Three young women wrestle with themselves and each other in a complex cycle of interconnected anxieties as they attempt to carve out their own paths, each somehow aware of the shape their lives should take yet afraid to pursue it. The Tokyo of West North West is one defined by disconnection, loneliness and permanent anxiety but it is not the city which is the enemy of happiness but an internal unwillingness to find release from self imposed imprisonment.
After beginning with the twilight scene of a city in fog, Nakamura cuts to Iranian student Naima (Sahel Rosa) leaving the visa bureau with something on her mind. An attempt to call a friend strikes out when she discovers her with her fellow Chinese students busily chatting away in a language she does not understand. Taking refuge in a coffee shop, Naima spots another similarly depressed woman silently crying at a table in the very back corner.
Striking up a conversation, the two women unexpectedly begin a tentative friendship but Kei (Hanae Kan) has problems of her own. Trapped in a toxic relationship with fashion model Ai (Yuka Yamauchi) whose possessive, jealous, and entirely self-centred behaviour have turned her into a nervous wreck, Kei is acutely preoccupied with her lack of forward motion, feeling as if she’s just been somehow pushed out into the world with no clear idea of what it is she’s supposed to be doing.
Kei and Naima have much more in common than it might at first seem. Culturally displaced, Naima is at odds with her surroundings despite her native level language abilities but she finds a kind of ally in the taciturn Kei when an emotional outburst in the cafe causes commotion with an unpleasant fellow customer who objects either to the “inappropriate” loudness of her phone call or that it’s in another language. Naima is a retiring sort and mortified to have caused a fuss but Kei, coming to her rescue, is bored with accepting other people’s intolerance. Having felt so alone, pushed away from her only other real friend by an impenetrable barrier of culture and language, someone arriving and actively taking her side is an almost miraculous development.
Bonding instantly in their shared melancholy, the two women share a deepening sense of recognition as Naima begins spending more time with Kei, sleeping on her sofa and getting her to look after the pet bird which she refuses to name so that it will hurt less when they are eventually forced to part. Kei’s prejudices and preconceptions are pushed by Naima’s fierce attachment to her religion, but her eventual decision to casually state that she has a girlfriend meets with only mild surprise rather than rejection or moral questioning. Attempting to clarify Kei’s vague reply, Naima asks directly if Kei is a “lesbian” only for her to irritatedly deny the label – it’s just that she only falls in love with women, she says. Naima’s reasoned response that that’s pretty much the definition of “lesbian” leads to Kei quickly exiting the scene in confusion, not wanting to pursue this line of thought any further though it perhaps sends Naima in exactly the opposite direction.
Kei’s intense insecurity regarding her sexuality is one reason she seems to find it so hard to break things off with high maintenance girlfriend Ai despite her obvious unhappiness with the relationship. Ai, a low level fashion model, has a series of intense insecurities of her own though these have less to do with sexuality and more with power and control. Having realised that Kei is not as attached to her as she is to Kei, Ai’s jealous rages have Kei in a permanent state of fear from which she attempts to hide at a local pool only to have a full blown panic attack on receiving an unexpected phone call from her girlfriend.
An awkward hospital waiting room conversation with Ai’s mother explains much of her behaviour as she begins to lay out the various failings of her child and desire for her to give up modelling and live a “normal” life. Ai had not shared the fact that her lover was another woman, leaving her mother to feign politeness even whilst feeling he need to voice her “disgust” that her child had “these kinds of feelings”. Indifferent to Kei’s ongoing discomfort, Ai’s mother has a few home truths for the woman who’s corrupted her daughter, advising her to break up with Ai as soon as possible seeing as the relationship is doomed to failure.
In principle, Ai’s mother might have offended Kei but she has to concede that she has a point. Kei is not happy with Ai, but Ai will not let her go. Ai’s jealousy is both the catalyst and barrier for Kei’s growing feelings for Naima as she seeks a kindred spirit and gentle soul in refuge from Ai’s emotional violence. An awkward dinner party between the two makes plain the degree to which they are ill suited when Ai berates the sullen Kei for a lack of emotional readability ironically missing that Kei needs someone to understand her feelings instinctively – a level of connection on which self-centred Ai is ultimately unwilling to engage.
Ai’s attempt to warn off Naima in a worryingly threatening “stay away from my girl” speech eventually forces her to confront her own feelings and what exactly Kei is to her. Both women are repeatedly asked to provide a definition of their relationship, faltering each time, but Naima’s crisis runs deeper as she’s forced to confront herself on a more profound level. A group job interview provokes an unexpected moment of introspection as she’s cruelly asked what exactly she’s learned during her time in Japan and is thrown into silence before admitting that she does not know. Naima may indeed have learned or perhaps confirmed a few things about herself, but if she has she is still unable to accept them.
Beautifully played by Sahel Rosa, Naima’s isolation is palpable in her pain filled eyes and longing looks as she finds herself captivated by the more certain yet diffident Kei. Hanae Kan’s Kei is equally trapped within herself, essentially kind yet reserved, afraid to break things off with the controlling Ai yet confused by her growing feelings for the increasingly conflicted Naima. Returning to the fog filled cityscape, Nakamura leaves things as he finds them, refusing resolution as each of the central characters compromises themselves in one way or another, settling for something that seems “right” but feels essentially wrong. The melancholy greyness of a wintery sunset descends once again, leaving each of the three women rudderless but with an added burden of self knowledge tinged with regret and sorrow.
Reviewed at BFI Flare 2017.
Original trailer (English subtitles)
If you happen to understand either Japanese or German there’s an interesting video interview with director Takuro Nakamura produced for the Munich Film Festival: