“I thought we could understand each other because we’re both minorities, but that was wrong”, director Ayako Imamura admits in her revealing, self-reflective documentary I Quit, Being “Friends” (友達やめた。, Tomodachi Yameta) in which she contemplates her sometimes awkward relationship with a friend who has Asperger’s and struggles with communication. Imamura herself was born deaf and so also faces daily communication barriers living in a hearing society but often has difficulty understanding Ma-chan’s sense of anxiety and social rejection becoming increasingly irritated by seemingly trivial examples of what she sees as rudeness or lack of consideration.
Ayako apparently met Ma-chan a few months before the film began at a screening of her previous film, Start Line, which charted her journey across Japan by bicycle. Ma-chan had become involved with social welfare issues in university, making friends with deaf students and learning sign language. At the event, Ma-chan was supposed to be her interpreter, but as the screening began ahead of schedule she arrived after it started and simply sat in the front row of the audience not knowing what else to do. This seems to have irritated Ayako, put off by her supposed bad attitude.
It is then a minor irony that part of Ayako’s growing resentment stems from something she did not even notice directly in that Ma-chan never says “itadakimasu” as is customary and polite before eating. Ayako’s grandmother pointed this out to her, taking against Ma-chan thinking her rude or ungrateful while Ayako herself who obviously couldn’t hear if she said it or not tried to defend her if superficially on the grounds of her disability. Later Ma-chan explains that she believes not saying itadakimasu is not (directly) related to her neurodivergence but simply because her family did not say it and so she never learned the habit, while Ayako gradually realises that she has perhaps become fixated on “Asperger’s” to the extent that she stopped seeing Ma-chan as person rather than an embodiment of her “condition”.
She had perhaps assumed that as two people who experience similar problems with communication they would be on the same wavelength, but finds it increasingly difficult to accept Ma-chan’s atypical behaviour, perhaps irrationally upset by the itadakimasu issue while otherwise put out by her tendency to eat other people’s snacks without asking and smack her on the back of the head when she’s done something silly. For her part, Ma-chan reveals she prefers using sign language because there’s less need for superficial politeness and therefore less chance of causing offence. Ayako consciously affects tolerance, wary of turning into one of those people who ask a deaf person if they haven’t just tried listening harder in railroading Ma-chan into neurotypical behaviour patterns but eventually decides to end their friendship explaining that she’s “done with trying to act like a nice person”.
While Ayako only obliquely addresses some of the problems she faces in the hearing world, using a relay system to book tickets over the phone for example, she is surprised to realise that Ma-chan has similar problems, too anxious to order food in a restaurant for example and reluctant to use the telephone even if not physically incapable. We’re told that Ma-chan also suffers from depression and see her expressing suicidal thoughts in despair of being constantly told that she needs to change in order to adapt to neurotypical society and knowing that she can’t. What occurs between the two women is perhaps an ironic kind of miscommunication informed by a degree of culturally specific rigidity in which rudeness deliberate or otherwise is an unforgivable sin.
Despite having elected to end their friendship, Ayako eventually changes her mind and decides to try again, more directly, with a little mutual understanding each stating bluntly what behaviour they find puzzling or hurtful and attempting to explain why it occurs, drawing up something like a set of ground rules and boundaries for their relationship. Attending a meeting in Tokyo in which disabled activists express solidarity with the LGBTQ+ community following a politician’s crass remark that “unproductive” (ie those who do not contribute to solving the declining birthrate problem) people do not deserve social support, both women are forced to reconsider their views on and as minorities addressing some uncomfortable thoughts they too may have had about their place in society and that of others. Nevertheless, in the end they each resolve to struggle against any unconscious prejudice they may have, actively striving to forge a friendship based on mutual understanding and brokered by resolute honesty rather than allow pettiness and resentment to drive them apart.
I Quit, Being “Friends” streamed as part of this year’s Nippon Connection.
Original trailer (English subtitles)