Hyper-individualism goes to war with collective harmony in Yasuo Okuaki’s taiko-themed coming-of-age manga adaptation, Between Us (藍に響け, Ai ni Hibike, AKA Wadaiko Girls). Reminded that “your sound is everyone’s sound” the closed-off heroine begins to realise you can’t always just do your own thing and expect everyone else to deal with it, but in the end shows remarkably little growth as even her otherwise positive contribution of helping a similarly troubled young woman quite literally find her voice is in itself achieved mainly through abrasive bullying not to mention a persistent ableism which otherwise entirely ignores her feelings.
Okuaki opens with an intense scene as the heroine, Tamaki (Ayaka Konno), burns her ballet shoes alone on the beach at night before staring pensively out at the ocean. As we discover, Tamaki has a lot going on that she is reluctant to share with others. Something has evidently gone wrong at home, she seems worried about money and the modest house she shares with her mother who appears to work late often is filled with packing boxes suggesting they may only recently have moved. She hasn’t told her mum she’s given up ballet, partly it seems because she’s working part-time at the local supermarket which she has to keep a secret because the elite Catholic school she attends has a rule against part-time jobs. Wandering around alone however while her friends, who each seem to come from extremely wealthy families, assume she’s heading to ballet Tamaki becomes captivated by the sound of taiko drumming, eventually spotted by a young woman practicing, Maria (Sayu Kubota), who happens to be mute.
Despite the impossibility of direct communication, Maria manages to covey her enthusiasm for the drums presumably picking up on something in Tamaki which, for unexplained reasons, she is extremely reluctant to explore. Fellow drummer Kahoko, however, is dead set against her joining the club even setting her a cruel and impossible challenge as a kind of entrance exam. The irony is that even as the sullen Tamaki stands up against low-level bullying from Kahoko who makes a basic training exercise seem like humiliating punishment, Tamaki becomes far too into perfecting the art of taiko, obsessively honing her craft and displaying natural ability but quickly losing patience with her fellow drummers who are mostly playing for fun and friendship.
Tamaki is and remains distinctly unpleasant to be around while Kahoko seems to soften, becoming a source of support to the other girls, and poor Maria is rounded on by just about everyone including maternal figure Sister Nitche (Mariko Tsutsui) who was once herself a top taiko coach but for reasons unknown gave up the art, got religion, and became a nun. Sister Nitche was known as a demon coach, and the decision to reassume her role does indeed resurface an element of cruelty in her unseen in her role as high school teacher and carer at the attached children’s centre. Maria first bonds with Tamaki in revealing to her that she was rendered mute in a car accident and has been undergoing rehabilitative therapy in an attempt to regain her speech but that it hasn’t been going as well as she’d hoped. Yet both Sister Nitche and Tamaki eventually set on her, insisting that the reason she’s not making progress is because she’s not trying hard enough instead of, perhaps, reassuring her that even if she not able to improve her speaking it would still be fine and there’s no need to rush.
The conflict seems to be between the ultra-competitive, deeply wounded Tamaki and the ethos of taiko which demands group harmony. There’s no point being a show off because the group must move as one, yet Tamaki struggles to accommodate herself to the idea of adapting to the collective rhythm insisting everyone attempt to match her speed while suggesting that those who can’t aren’t up to the task and should voluntarily resign rather than bring the group down, echoing the rather harsh survival of the fittest philosophy espoused by a transformed Sister Nitche. Just as she had, Tamaki later turns on Maria in the face of her own failure repeatedly insisting that she is a “loser” who wouldn’t fight for taiko or for her voice in a confrontation that leads first to a physical fight and then to an intense taiko battle that bears out the repeated notion of baring one’s soul through the beating of the drum.
There is an unmistakable though unresolved homoerotisicm in the conflict between the two young women filled as it is with repressed emotion, frustration, and unspoken desires all of which appear to dissipate through the climax of the physically and emotionally intense taiko session. Nevertheless, there is also something in uncomfortable in the fact of Maria’s path towards finding her literal voice arising because of what is essentially abusive bullying rather than encouragement or positive support especially as it also denies her the right to speak her feelings honestly while no one is making much of an effort to listen to her. Tamaki meanwhile remains somewhat unsympathetic even in her silent concern for Maria betrayed by the unexpected warmth of her smile in seeing her deciding to return to taiko, her own buried troubles otherwise unresolved while her unforgiving hyper-individualism is tacitly condoned even as she learns to submit herself to the collective rhythm and finds through it the sense of connection she was perhaps missing.
Between Us screened as part of this year’s Camera Japan
Original trailer (no subtitles)