The past becomes an irresistible trap for a collection of variously troubled souls in Riho Kudo’s Pia winning feature Orphan’s Blues (オーファンズ・ブルース). “Things change” the heroine laments, unable to keep up with the relentless passage of time as her memory begins to collapse in on itself, leaving only nostalgia behind. A poetic exploration of grief, rootlessness, and trauma, Kudo’s bold debut sends its fugitive protagonists on a sad road trip into the long buried past as they attempt to dig up their childhood innocence in escape from an intolerable present.
Emma (Yukino Murakami), a middle-aged woman making a living with a tiny book stand at the side of the road in a small town, has been experiencing unexplained moments of memory loss – forgetting to place a customer’s order, leaving taps on, repeating herself having forgotten that she’s asked this question several times before. Losing the present sends her back to thoughts of the past as evidenced by a picture of a pack of elephants drawn by her childhood friend, Yang (Yu Yoshii), with whom she grew up in the same orphanage. Longing for that same closeness, she decides to track him down but a visit to Chinatown proves fruitless, as does an attempt to call in at the last address she had. Determined to find out what happened to Yang, she reconnects with another friend, Van (Takuro Kamikawa), who is in the process of fleeing to Tahiti with his girlfriend Yuri (Nagiko Tsuji) after stealing some gangsters’ money. When that doesn’t work out they end up accompanying Emma to a small inn run by a woman, Luca (Tamaki Kuboso), who was once in a relationship with Yang, and where a mysterious young man, Aki (Shion Sasaki), is currently staying.
All of our protagonists, bar perhaps Yuri, have a prominent burn somewhere on their body. Emma’s is on her left shoulder – a scald mark she keeps rubbing at times of stress. Van has a scar from a cigarette burn on his right arm, while Luca has what looks like a brand where a wedding ring might once have been worn. Even Aki has some kind scar on his right wrist, conveniently hidden by his long-sleeved shirts. Each of these people is in some way connected by the absent Yang, desperately in search of him even if some perhaps are more aware than others what might have befallen their absent friend.
Luca, who has a series of elephant tattoos across the nape of her neck, recounts that Yang once told her that elephants separate from the pack after receiving a premonition of their deaths. To spare the others the suffering of seeing them pass away, they leave before they go. Yang, they posit, may have followed their example but if he has all he has done is provoke additional suffering among his confused friends. Emma struggles to remember, frustrated by her inability to stay in the present while being pulled towards the past, feeling as if she’s missing some vital clue which will explain everything.
Meanwhile, the tensions between the five residents at the inn ebb and flow. Yuri, who never knew Yang and is beginning to fear she and Van will never get to Tahiti after all, feels herself excluded from the ongoing drama. She resents the closeness between Van and Emma, irritated that only Emma knows how to calm him down in the midst of emotional meltdown, while wondering how long he’s going to keep her waiting in this strangely liminal space caught between a past she never knew and a possibly unattainable future.
Waiting is however where they are. Van wants to go back, return to a happy place the three childhood friends once travelled and dig up something they buried but can no longer remember. Emma, confused, eventually finds herself rooted in a delusion of the past, unable to see the present clearly while Van is left with little choice other than to abandon himself to facilitate her temporary happiness. Scarred, they run from a disappointing future into childhood nostalgia unable to reconcile the adults they’ve become with the children they once were. Literally as well as figuratively orphaned, they remain adrift with no clear place to belong or return to. Subtle and poetic, Kudo’s beautifully lensed debut is an achingly melancholy piece but one which perhaps finds hope in the solidarity of the lost as much as it suggests there is no path forward for those who can only look back.
Original trailer (English subtitles)