“Humans fly solo from the day we are born. You need to make an effort to be with someone” the heroine of Akiko Ohku’s latest chronicle of the contemporary woman’s inner loneliness, Hold Me Back (私をくいとめて, Watashi wo Kuitomete), is reminded. Like the heroine of Ohku’s mega hit Tremble All You Want, 31-year-old office worker Mitsuko (Non) is an introverted lonely soul through unlike the slightly older protagonist of My Sweet Grappa Remedies she is clearly much less happy with her single life than she likes to pretend often talking over her existential worries with an inner voice she refers to as “A” for “Answers”.
As we first meet Mitsuko she’s taking part in a weekend workshop making fake food samples out of wax, later stopping off to pick up take out tempura on her way home because it saves stinking out her kitchen frying for one. She spends her free time thinking up things to do on her own on the weekends, but always seems to carry a degree of anxiety about her culturally taboo singledom. Having decided to try out a popular sandwich place, she finds herself leaving a nearby park because she feels awkward taking up a picnic table for four surrounded by couples and families on a day out. For similar reasons she nixes an idea to go to the beach, frightened she’d stand out as a lone woman. She finds herself asking A what she could do to make people like her more, clearly hungry for company but also afraid of it admitting it’s much easier to relax when she’s on her own and presumably free from the pressures of potential judgement.
It’s potentially because of this awkwardness that she ends up in an ill-defined non-relationship with an equally diffident salaryman who often visits her office. The perfectly pleasant Tada (Kento Hayashi) is a young bachelor surviving off cutlets from a food stand in the neighbourhood where they both coincidentally live. Mitsuko tells a few fibs about her gourmet lifestyle but is actually a good cook though her probably made out of politeness invitation to make Tada dinner somewhat backfires as she finds herself cooking him “takeout”, preparing a meal while he waits awkwardly in her hallway before taking it home to eat on his own. A conversation with A reveals she does indeed have a crush on Tada and would like to ask him to stay but is fearful of ruining the non-relationship they already have if he should suddenly mention a girlfriend or refuse her invitation.
Unrevealed even with her conversations with herself is a potential history of personal trauma, recalling a bad date with middle-aged dentist who told her he didn’t want to date a patient in public but had already booked a hotel room while getting handsy in the bar. On an onsen getaway she’s gifted by a friend who got it at wedding she doesn’t want to spend time thinking about, Mitsuko witnesses a comedian stage rushed by a pair of creepy guys and desperately wants to say something but finds herself unable. Talking it over with A she berates herself for her internal complicity with a patriarchal society, remembering all the times she let it go when a sleazy boss grabbed at her, an older co-worker who tried to convince her that it wasn’t OK eventually forced out of her job. She takes refuge in the fact her supportive female boss has managed to carve out a career for herself, believing she will eventually triumph over sleazy and incompetent men who take credit for the work done by their talented female subordinates but also assumes that Ms. Sawada (Hairi Katagiri) must be a lonely workaholic who sacrificed her personal life for the professional.
An invitation from uni best friend Satsuki (Ai Hashimoto), meanwhile, who married an Italian and moved to Rome further deepens her sense of early life crisis, especially on discovering that Satsuki had neglected to mention that she was pregnant in any of their correspondence. It’s telling in a sense that A seems to desert her when she has someone “real” to talk to, absenting himself for the entirety of her time in Italy during which she realises that happy as she is Satsuki is also lonely living in an unfamiliar country and understandably anxious about the birth of her first child so far from home. Yet A’s frequent absences only exacerbate her fear of abandonment, after all if even her inner consciousness is jumping ship what possible hope is there for anyone else?
But then as he tells her “You cannot escape being you”, her inner voice will always be there even if she doesn’t really need him anymore. “It was easier fighting loneliness alone” she exclaims in panic, suddenly getting cold feet about a possible step forward in terms of human intimacy, only later calming down after a final pep talk with A convinces her it’s worth the risk. Less surreal than Tremble All You Want while less rosy than My Sweet Grappa Remedies, Hold Me Back embraces its heroine’s internal vulnerabilities with a relatable realism as she tearfully asks the absent A “I’ll be OK this time, right?” before daring to find out come what may.
Hold Me Back screens in Brisbane (Nov. 14), Melbourne (Nov. 20/24), and Sydney (Nov. 27 / Dec. 3) as part of this year’s Japanese Film Festival Australia.
Teaser trailer (English subtitles)