Is the definition of “space” defined by absence as much as presence? Do we carve out pieces of the world to inhabit, or simply shift into an idea of place which we construct entirely around ourselves? Yui Kiyohara’s feature debut Our House (わたしたちの家, Watashitachi no Ie), completed as part of her graduation project for a masters at Tokyo University of the Arts, hints at the eeriness of a shared existential continuum as four women bridge inter-dimensional connections while living in the “same” two-storey house in Yokohama.
We begin with 14-year-old Seri (Nodoka Kawanishi) dancing cheerfully with a few of her friends presumably on a sleepover wearing incongruously old-fashioned nightgowns like the heroines of a gothic boarding school drama. The fun stops however when Seri thinks she hears a funny noise, half convinced the house is haunted. Her friends tell her it’s all in her mind, but something seems odd and she can’t seem to shake the sense of presence in the house.
Part of that might be because, though Seri’s father appears to have left long ago, she still dwells on his memory and perhaps feels the echo of him in their family home. It may seem particularly poignant to her right now because her mother, Kiriko (Yukiko Yasuno), has found a new man – Takashi (Toshio Furuya), who drives the local rubbish truck. Kiriko wants to get married again, and Seri, entering adolescence herself and playfully teasing her friend about a possible romance, cannot quite accept that her mum’s moved on.
Changing tack, a young woman wakes up on a ferry with seemingly no memory of how she got there or of her previous life aside from her name, Sana (Mariwo Osawa). Another woman on the boat, Toko (Mei Fujiwara), stops to ask if she’s alright and then offers to let her stay at her place, which happens to be an identical house to the one in which Seri and her mum live, until she remembers who she is.
Though Seri’s story has its whimsy, it remains firmly within the realms of the natural while there’s something decidedly odd about the world Toko and Sana inhabit. There is, however, a strange symmetry to their relationships. Both sets of women are keeping things from one another if for slightly different reasons. There are after all secrets which must exist between a teenage girl and her mother, so perhaps Kiriko doesn’t quite discuss her relationship with Takashi with her daughter, and Seri doesn’t talk to her mother about the kinds of things she talks to her friend about, but there are also additional communication difficulties in their shared reluctance to talk about the “ghost” of Seri’s absent father or about Seri’s various anxieties which manifest in her preoccupation with a possible haunting.
With Toko and Sana there is of course the issue of amnesia, but in this case it’s Toko who appears to be keeping secrets in her well concealed paranoia and illicit activities which see her handing over plain envelopes in dingy corridors and asking pointed questions about water pollution. Does she know more about Sana than she lets on, or is Sana perhaps a spy herself faking her amnesia to get close to Toko? In any case, Toko seems to want to keep her around, letting her know she can stay for as long as she wants, but it’s not entirely clear if that’s altogether a good thing or if Toko has more or less kidnapped a friend to keep safely at home. When she recommends drinking from the bottled water in the fridge rather than from the tap, we’re apt to wonder which source it is that might be “polluted”.
In that sense, both environments, hitherto exclusively female spaces, are eventually “polluted” by unexpected male intrusion. The spectre of Seri’s father may be ever present in the home, but it’s Takashi who places a strain on the relationship of mother and daughter, whereas Sana’s coffeeshop buddy Natsuki (Masanori Kikuzawa) sets off Toko’s alarm bells in more ways than one as he simultaneously encourages her to doubt her new friend, become jealous on an emotional level, and then anxious on a professional one as she wonders if Natsuki has befriended Sana to get into the house and look for a mysterious “something” she quickly tells him is no longer there.
“Things embedded in the mind can never be lost” Toko reassures Sana, but also affirms that “nobody can prove who they are”, which might be true but doesn’t do much to help her identity-shorn friend. Natsuki too, claiming that Sana resembles someone he used to know, describes his old acquaintance as if she were “filled with a light that can’t be seen” perhaps alluding to the hidden depths he could only be aware existed within her but was never permitted to see. Toko says she lives the way she does so that she “won’t be defeated by gravity” but offers no reply when asked if she knows of anyone who has ever successfully defied it.
What we’re left with, is two mutually dependent realities though we’ve no way of knowing if each is located in the same temporal space or if one is past and another future. There’s a curious timelessness to Seri’s innocent world of birthday parties and walking on the beach with a friend, whereas Toko’s odd attire and slightly robotic manner of speaking hint towards a kind of retro futurism. The space, it seems, remains the same. Seri’s aunt, looking around, notices cracks in the walls but admires the house’s resilience prompting Kiriko to describe it as “still healthy”, as if it were a living entity which envelops them rather than a space they shape themselves. Yet the space is what connects them, one location existing at an intersection between two worlds. Events mirror each other, actions begin to have effect on each side though unknowingly. The curious symmetry might go someway to explaining life’s uncanniness, the sense of echoing we all feel on entering a dark and empty room, but it also provides a mechanism for harmony as items find themselves transferred to the place in which they are most needed. The space defines itself, but then perhaps it really is all “our house” – a shared universe in which we remain aware of each other but painfully unable to connect.
Available to stream via Mubi (UK) until Sept. 27.
Original trailer (English subtitles)