Marriage Hunting Beauty (美人が婚活してみたら, Akiko Ohku, 2018)

out_bijyo_poster_B2Is life really easier for “beautiful” people or do they simply experience a different series of problems? Some might say beauty is a nice problem to have, but however much people may scoff there is perhaps a price to be paid for physical attractiveness as the heroine of Akiko Ohku’s Marriage Hunting Beauty (美人が婚活してみたら, Bijin ga Konkatsu Shite Mitara) is at pains to point out though few are willing to sympathise. What she discovers, however, is that her beauty has perhaps been her blindspot in that it has made her self-centred and entitled while preventing her from realising what is it that has really been bothering her.

At 32, Takako (Mei Kurokawa) remains romantically naive and has wound up in a series of dead end relationships with terrible men who happened to be married (though she didn’t find out until it was too late). Her best friend, married housewife Keiko (Asami Usuda), tells her that her problem is that she’s too beautiful – single guys are too intimidated to make the first move while the married ones are emboldened by their desire to play with fire and the knowledge that the relationship is essentially meaningless because they already have “commitment” elsewhere. Hitting rock bottom, Takako suddenly has an epiphany that she wants to get married if only to prove that she is worthy of becoming someone’s wife rather just their mistress.

Takako is, it has to be said, perfectly aware that she is an attractive woman and sees little point in deflecting praise that comes her way because her appearance – something that begins to grate on Keiko as Takako fails submit herself to the level of socially accepted modesty which would require her to protest when called “beautiful”. Keiko’s categorising her as a sad princess is perhaps accurate in that she certainly likes to paint herself as hard done by while refusing to engage with the aspects of her life which cause her to feel miserable and empty. Entering the world of “konkatsu” – accelerated dating with a view to marriage, is then a humbling experience in which she must simultaneously raise and lower her expectations in order to work towards an “ordinary”, conventional kind of settled domesticity.

Of course, “beautiful” people aren’t supposed to need such services, and so Takako’s first few matches on a dedicated marriage orientated website are predictably depressing – a parade of strange older gentlemen hoping to bag a beauty and usually selling their social capital (houses, steady jobs etc) to do so. The one guy she does kind of hit it off with, Sonogi (Tomoya Nakamura), is a shy salaryman who seems nice but lacks confidence and remains creepily in awe of her beauty. Meanwhile, a singles mixer at an “elite” bar introduces her to cynical dentist Yatabe (Kei Tanaka) who seems to have confidence in abundance but very little kindness.

Takako is back to the familiar problem of trying to choose between two men, one nice but servile and the other selfish and indifferent but admittedly exciting. Yatabe is a walking collection of red flags, which is to say that he’s just Takako’s type, but fortunately she’s beginning to figure out that what she likes is not always what’s good for her. Then again, she’s also trying to move past her conception of herself as a “beautiful” woman so Sonogi’s constant deference and gratitude for being allowed in the presence of someone so out of his league is exactly the opposite of what she’s looking for even if she’s beginning to warm to his nice guy charms.

Meanwhile, she remains uncomfortable with her own sense of desire and struggles to reconcile it with society’s preconceived notions of what “beautiful people” should be. Despite their otherwise close friendship, Takako is unable to talk honestly even with Keiko and largely fails to take much of an interest in her friend’s life. Keiko, meanwhile, seems to be trapped in an unfulfilling marriage and secretly may not want Takako to change because she is vicariously enjoying her messy bachelorette lifestyle. Nevertheless, it’s friendship which eventually wins out as the two women agree to meet on more equal terms, sharing their essential selves honestly and without fear as they commit to supporting each other with mutual understanding.

“There are no shortcuts to love”, Takako finally acknowledges as she realises what wanted all along wasn’t superficial acceptance but recognition. What looked like haughtiness was really low self esteem. A quirky tale of a middle-aged woman finding the courage to step into herself, Marriage Hunting Beauty might be telling a familiar story but does so with genuine sympathy for its beautiful heroine as she finally finds the strength to reject the social straightjacket and reclaim her sense of self as a person worthy of respect rather than reverence or ridicule.


Marriage Hunting Beauty was screened as the opening night gala of the 2019 Nippon Connection Film Festival.

Original trailer (no subtitles)

Tremble All You Want (勝手にふるえてろ, Akiko Ohku, 2017)

tremble all you want posterShojo manga has a lot to answer for when it comes to defining ideas of romance in the minds of its young and female readers. The heroines of Japanese romantic comedies are almost always shojo manga enthusiasts – the lovelorn lady at the centre of Christmas on July 24th Avenue even magics herself into a fantasy Lisbon to better inhabit the cute and innocent world of a manga she loved in childhood. The heroine of Tremble All You Want (勝手にふるえてろ, Katte ni Furuetero), Yoshika (Mayu Matsuoka), does something similar in creating an alternate fantasy world filled with intimate acquaintances each encouraging and invested in her ongoing quest to win the heart of a boy she loved in high school who became the hero of her personal interest only manga, The Natural Born Prince.

At 24 Yoshika is still obsessed with “Ichi” (Takumi Kitamura) who is forever number “One” in her affections. Working as an office lady in the accounts department, Yoshika’s fingers tip tap over the calculator all day long until she can finally go home and read about her favourite topic, extinct animals, on the internet before it’s time to head back to work. Because of her undying love for Ichi (whom she has not seen or heard from in many years), Yoshika has never had a boyfriend or engaged in “dating” – something which causes her a small amount of anxiety and embarrassment when considering the additional awkwardness of starting out at such a comparatively late age.

Yoshika’s dilemma reaches a crisis point when, much to her surprise, a colleague becomes interested in her. Kirishima (Daichi Watanabe), whom she rechristens number “Two”, is, like her, slightly shy and bumbling but also outgoing and with a need to say things out loud. Seeing as this is apparently the first time this has ever happened to Yoshika, she finds it very confusing – not least because she can’t decide if “dating” Kirishima is a betrayal of Ichi or if she is really ready to leave her Natural Born Prince behind.

The dilemma isn’t so much between man one and man two but between fantasy and reality, idealism and practicality. Yoshika, painfully shy, lives in a fantasy world of her own creation as we discover during a tentative, emotionally raw musical number in which she is forced to confront the fact that the reason she doesn’t know the names of any of the people we’ve seen her repeatedly engage with is that, despite her longing and her loneliness, she has never been able to pluck up the courage to actually speak to them. Thus they exist in her head as a series of nicknames, theoretical constructs of “friends” with whom to engage in (one-sided) conversations – a frighteningly relatable (if extreme) concept to the painfully shy. Deprived of her fluffy fantasy, Yoshika arrives home to collapse in tears and finds her world growing colder, riding the bus all alone and eventually cocooning herself in her apartment.

Thus when Kirishima starts to show an interest, Yoshika can’t quite figure out which “reality” she is really in. The idea that he might simply like her doesn’t compute so she assumes the worst and pushes him away in grand style, retreating to the entirely safe world of Ichi worship in which she, in a sense, has already been rejected so there is nothing left to fear. Coming up with a nefarious plan to meet Ichi by stealing the identity of a former classmate and organising a reunion, Yoshika’s fantasy is challenged by the man himself or more specifically his perception of events which differs slightly from her own owing to not placing herself at the centre. Though Yoshika had correctly surmised that Ichi was uncomfortable with the attention he received as the school’s “number one” and decided to ignore him as a token of her love, she remained unaware of the degree to which he suffered in her obsession with her own unrequited desires.

Wondering if she should just “go extinct” like the animals she loves so much who evolved in ways incompatible with life on Earth – literally too weird to live, Yoshika begins to lose her grip on the divisions between fantasy and reality, unable to accept the “real” attention and affection of those who would be her real world friends if she’d only let them while continuing to engage in the wilfully self destructive mourning of her illusions. Tremble All You Want (but do it anyway) seems to become Yoshika’s new mantra as she makes her first active decision to gravitate towards the land of the real despite her fear and the conviction that it will not accept her. Filled with whimsical charm but laced with a particular kind of melancholy darkness, Ohku’s tale of modern love in a disconnected world is a strangely cheerful affair even as our heroine prepares to swap her colourful fantasy for the potential comforts of the everyday.


Screened at the 20th Udine Far East Film Festival.

Original trailer (hit the subtitle button to turn on English subs)

Tokyo Serendipity (恋するマドリ, Akiko Ohku, 2007)

tokyo-serendipityCities are often serendipitous places, prone to improbable coincidences no matter how large or densely populated they may be. Tokyo Serendipity (恋するマドリ, Koisuru Madori) takes this quality of its stereotypically “quirky” city to the limit as a young art student finds herself caught up in other people’s unfulfilled romance only to fall straight into the same trap herself. Its tale may be an unlikely one, but director Akiko Ohku neatly subverts genre norms whilst resolutely sticking to a mid-2000s indie movie blueprint.

Yui Aoki (Yui Aragaki) is in search of a new apartment. She had been living in an unusual old fashioned building with beautiful stained-glass windows, but her sister’s in line for a shotgun marriage and if that weren’t trouble enough the apartment is set for demolition. Living on her own for the very first time, Yui moves into a smallish modern apartment in a building filled with various eccentric residents.

One in particular catches Yui’s attention – her mysterious upstairs neighbour, Takashi (Ryuhei Matsuda). By coincidence, Yui ends up working with Takashi at his lab where she learns he’s still broken up about a girlfriend that left him flat without even a word of goodbye. Remembering she left something behind at her old place she ends up meeting the new tenant, Atsuko (Rinko Kikuchi), and striking up a friendship with her over a shared interest in homemade furnishings. The coincidences continue as Yui discovers she and Atsuko have accidentally swapped apartments! Through this odd chain of events Yui also figures out that Atsuko is Takashi’s long lost love, but is hopelessly trapped in the middle, unsure of whether she should reveal this information to either party. Of course, her developing feelings for both Atsuko and Takashi place her in a series of difficult positions.

Tokyo Serendipity was sponsored by an interior design company and so it’s no surprise that the film makes quite a lot out of its production design. The fashion choices are very much of the time and favour quirky, individual aesthetics rather than an Ikea-esque off the peg minimalism. The original apartment which is soon to by bulldozed is an artist’s dream with its hidden fireplace, old fashioned furniture, stained glass windows and well lit interior. Broadly inspirational in this regard, it’s a thrifty kind of homestyle which prizes recycled materials and repurposed furnishings as opposed to the trendy high price surroundings of other parts of the city.

Like many other films of its kind from this era, Tokyo Serendipity adopts a natural, if occasionally surreal, approach filmed with a deadpan camera. The film’s one repeated large scale gag – a group of lucha libre wrestlers who work as removal men during the day, is a good example of this as their not improbable existence somehow seems oddly funny. They drop things but only in the ring – so they say, each of them well built men treating Yui’s precious goods as daintily as children using real china at a tea party. The humour could best be described as subtle, yet does succeed in raising a smile here and there.

Smiling turns out to be the film’s main message. In fact Ohku even states that her intention in making the film was solely to leave people with a smile of their faces – something which she broadly achieves. Atsuko, a slightly lost middle aged woman, claims she became an architect as she wanted to build a house with everybody smiling – something Yui echoes as she comes to a few conclusions of her own nearing the end of the film. However, Atsuko’s desire for harmony in all things is one she’s never been able to fulfil as childhood abandonment has left her with lingering commitment issues. Simply put, she always leaves first. Interestingly enough, Yui’s burgeoning romance takes a backseat to her growing friendship with Atsuko and a half-formed acknowledgment of middle-aged regrets she’s still to young to fully understand.

Despite amassing almost all of the conventional romantic comedy/drama motifs from a last minute dash to the airport and misdirected letters to an embarrassing scene where a relative is mistaken for a lover, Ohku rejects the romantic model as her central character wisely recognises exactly where she stands in this awkward situation and makes a sensible decision motivated by the best interests of both of her friends. Straightforwardly indie in style, Ohku keeps the quirk on a low simmer but manages to make her heightened reality seem perfectly natural. An unusual coming of age film trapped inside an indie romance, Tokyo Serendipity is like one of the tiny hidden spaces the film seems to like so much, though upon opening the door some will be more impressed with what they find than others.


Original trailer (no subtitles)