The Art Theatre Guild of Japan found itself in an awkward position in the late ‘70s. The kind of politically charged art cinema which had been its mainstay throughout the ‘60s was now out of fashion in the post-Asama Sanso world. The studio was then looking for new, young, dynamic voices who could potentially have something equally new and radical to offer to the the mid-’70s Japanese cinema scene which increasingly leaned towards the populist. That is perhaps how they came to work with émigré French Canadian filmmaker Claude Gagnon, distributing his independently produced debut feature Keiko. Gagnon’s film was nothing if not atypical of the time, dealing with the relatively taboo subject of female sexuality and the patriarchal society and doing it with a lens influenced more by European arthouse and New American cinema than by that of Japan or by the avant-garde movement which had forged ATG’s central ethos.
As the title implies, the tale revolves around the titular Keiko (Junko Wakashiba) – a 23-year-old office worker preoccupied with her lack of romantic success. Hoping to find a potential boyfriend, she spends her evenings in cafes, often staying until closing before going home alone. Embarrassed to still be a virgin at 23, she invites her old high school teacher (married with two children) out for a drink and they wind up in a love hotel but if Keiko thought losing her virginity would give her more confidence in dating she couldn’t be more wrong.
Soon enough she ends up in another “relationship” with a guy she meets in cafe but it’s obvious to everyone but Keiko that he is just using her for sex. Masaru (Takuma Ikeuchi), a photographer, constantly talks about himself and his work, refusing to go “out” on dates and preferring to simply arrive at Keiko’s flat and then leave again once he gets what he came for, claiming that his “mother” is waiting up for him at home. Eventually Keiko’s suspicions get the better of her and she finds out he is already married with children. The affair ends, leaving Keiko resentful and broken hearted. She drifts into a relationship with a colleague (Toshio Hashimoto) who is nice enough but Keiko isn’t really interested in him. Then something unexpected happens – a drunken experience with a female colleague leads to the most fulfilling and happiest period of her life but she is also plagued by calls from home about arranged marriages and “settling down”.
Told from Keiko’s perspective, Gagnon’s film paints a bleak picture of female existence in ‘70s Japan. Keiko’s office lady job is only really a stop gap ahead of a marriage and even at 23 she’s beginning to panic about finding a husband before her father finds one for her. She is shy and demure, modest and innocent as her society demands her to be, but she is also lonely. The camera finds her sitting alone at tables meant for four, the bars and cafes often completely empty save for her as they approach closing time. Keiko waits until the last minute, telling the girl behind the counter that she’s nothing much to do at home, but there’s nothing much to do in the bar either and she simply sits there all alone not talking to anyone, waiting for someone to take an interest only they rarely do.
Following the first few unsuccessful encounters with men, Keiko is initially confused by the unexpected interest from female colleague Kazuyo (Akiko Kitamura). Kazuyo, free spirited and independent, is perhaps portrayed more stereotypically with her short hair and tendency to dress in an overtly “masculine” fashion outside of work but few seem to have picked up on these seemingly “obvious” clues and she remains free to live her life in the way in which she chooses. Unlike Masaru who left in the middle of the night, Kazuyo is still around the next morning and not only that, she offers to cook breakfast and even takes a trip to the pharmacy to pick up some aspirin for Keiko’s sore head. Somewhat mystified by the whole affair and Kazuyo’s kindly consideration the morning after, Keiko tells her it might be better to forget about what happened the night before which Kazuyo again accepts without rancour.
Touched by all this maturity, Keiko begins to look at Kazuyo differently, and eventually decides to take a chance on something different. Before long they’ve taken an apartment together a little way out of town and begun building a life for themselves. Kazuyo is thinking about the future – she wants to start her own business and wants Keiko to help her, but the need for additional capital has her staying out evenings working in bars to earn extra money while Keiko is still getting letters from home about marriages.
Told entirely from Keiko’s perspective, Gagnon’s script veers away from its most interesting questions – why someone would willing abandon the greatest happiness they have ever felt and are certain they ever will feel to succumb to societal pressure to conform. Keiko’s oppression is almost taken as read, a constant background presence that never thinks to explain itself. Yet she is a grown woman (as she tries to point out to her father) who could simply have refused to take phone calls or answer letters. She has the power to say no to an arranged marriage, even if she perhaps does not have the power to live openly with Kazuyo as a married couple might. The film offers few explanations why she continues to placate a father she doesn’t like very much who lives a long way away save for leaving it at a need to be accounted “successful” in the eyes of society even if that conventional “success” is destined to make her very unhappy.
Gagnon’s approach is informed by European arthouse and to a lesser extent by contemporary New American cinema in attempting to create a kind of cinematic naturalism that exists in direct contrast to the expressive acting styles often found in more populist entertainment. He demonstrates the inertia of Keiko’s life by capturing her stillness, the scenes remain the same – only the outfits have changed. The camera pulls away from her as if it’s almost painful to do so, emphasising her loneliness and isolation as she remains trapped and alone in a society which abhors individualism but in reality cares little for individuals. The conformist society and its entrenched patriarchal social codes conspire to destroy happiness in order to maintain “stability”, condemning each to a particularly individual kind of misery from which it seems impossible to escape.
Original trailer (no subtitles)