For Rei (レイのために, Yukari Sakamoto, 2019)

(C)Yukari Sakamoto

Going to university is a prime opportunity to start figuring yourself out, but if you feel a little hollow inside it can often be an uphill battle. The heroine of Yukari Sakamoto’s For Rei (レイのために, Rei no Tame ni) is intensely anxious, somewhat distanced from herself in the unresolved trauma of her parents’ divorce and subsequent loss of contact with her father. University can also be a prime opportunity to reach towards independence, but that necessarily means learning to “let go of the things you don’t like” to chase the things you do while figuring out what the difference between those two things might be. 

Philosophy student Rei finds herself at odds with her classmates, some of whom actively belittle her off the wall contributions for being off the point while the TA offers only the reassurance that she found her words “poetic”, which given the environment she finds herself in might not exactly be high praise. Meanwhile, she’s in a loose relationship with fellow student Nakamura who has a part-time job as a driver he doesn’t much like. As she reveals to her mother, however what’s really bothering her is that she’d like to reconnect with her estranged birth father whom she hasn’t seen since her parents divorced when she was small. Despite her mother’s warnings that her father may only cause her pain, Rei presses ahead and writes a letter, eventually meeting up with him for dinner in a swanky Western restaurant where he orders wine and she coke. 

That comment that so riled her classmate was to do with the nature of perception and its mutual effect on the perceiver. Rei offers that she thinks being looked at is something inherently uncomfortable, that when someone looks at her she wants to look away while looking at someone else can be a cold, abstracted experience. Later, after meeting her father, she returns to the same topic with additional insight, admitting that she was always afraid of being perceived, feeling as if someone was continually watching and waiting for her to mess something up. As much as she feared the gaze, she also felt its pity and wanted to be embraced by it but as she grew she could no longer fit inside as it seemed to grow smaller and recede from her. The sense of loss and distance made her sad, but she is perhaps coming to the realisation that that feeling of disconnection is also a part of growing up as she outsteps the parental gaze to claim her own independent space. That process may necessarily be painful, but it’s her father’s hand on her shoulder that keeps her from moving fully forward as she struggles to separate herself from a half-felt presence. 

Rei’s father, apparently remarried, tries his best to reconnect with his now grown-up daughter but the encounter is unavoidably awkward, belonging both to the past and future as she realises she’s no longer a woman who needs a paternal presence just as she’s made the decision to find one. They chat awkwardly about the intervening years – her feelings of disconnection from her mother’s second family with a step-father and half-sister, and his remarriage, while eventually returning to the past. He never explains why he didn’t keep in contact (though this is sadly normal for divorced fathers in Japan) but is keen to explain that he didn’t leave because of her, only that he and her mother were very young and eventually discovered that they were incompatible, their views on money and family matters apparently entirely different. He didn’t understand her and the distance between them bothered him. 

Like Rei, he couldn’t feel himself inside the gaze and eventually absented himself from it. The reunion seems to have gone well, her father offering to take her mountain climbing, but we somehow feel that they might not meet again. What Rei learns is the power to perceive herself with pity and perhaps let go of the image of her father, a little disappointed in herself to have taken a throwaway comment to heart and remembered it all these years only to garner no reaction on recalling it. Freed from the overbearing gaze, Rei learns to centre her own perception, forgiving both herself and the past, as she steps boldly into a new adult space and sets off into a future of her own choosing.


 For Rei was screened as part of this year’s Osaka Asian Film Festival.

Original trailer (English subtitles)

The Modern Lovers (東京の恋人, Atsuro Shimoyashiro, 2019)

Where now the dreams of youth? It may be impossible to escape a regretful middle age, wondering what might have been if only you knew then what you know now, but for the heroes of Atsuro Shimoyashiro’s The Modern Lovers (東京の恋人, Tokyo no Koibito) the pain seems all the more acute. “Today’s the day our youth ends” a brokenhearted woman laments, trying to make peace with her choices but finding that her return to the past may have done more harm than good. 

Tatsuo (Ryu Morioka) is a 31-year-old salaryman, married with a baby on the way and living in provincial Gunma. With the anxiety of impending fatherhood on his mind, he’s surprised to receive a message from his university girlfriend, Marina (Nanami Kawakami), who wants to reconnect. Telling his wife he’s going on a business trip, Tatsuo decides to spend the weekend in Tokyo, staying with another friend from uni before meeting up with Marina for a Sunday in the city reminiscing about old times. 

Like Tatsuo, his old college friend Komazawa (Tomoki Kimura) has long since given up the dream of becoming a filmmaker. A breakdown at 27 has apparently led to a diagnosis of bipolar disorder leaving him unable to hold down a job and dependent on his wife, Seiko (Maki Nishiyama), who supports both him and his step-daughter Shizuko through sex work while Komazawa has become an idle alcoholic. Despite his disappointment, Tatsuo spends the evening bonding with the local bar lady who claims to be able to see the future before leaving early in the morning to meet Marina who suggests revisiting the seaside they went to years before. 

Very much ready to step back into the more innocent past, Tatsuo has brought with him a tape of a song they used to listen to way back when and wastes no time in reassuming the poses of his 20-year-old self, sunshades and all. Marina, by contrast is self-consciously cute but mature, if perhaps sad. Tatsuo starts to tell her that he gave up his filmmaking dreams, married a good woman, and took a regular salaryman job at the family firm, but fails to complete the thought. Marina meanwhile casually remarks that she married a wealthy man but hints that she did so largely for convenience and material comfort rather than love. 

“We never get to marry the woman we love the most” Tatsuo’s strangely boys will be boys brother-in-law (Mutsuo Yoshioka) sighs, commiserating with Tatsuo’s lament for his disappointed youth and failure to make his filmmaking dreams a reality. We discover that an early success in a scriptwriting competition gave him an inflated sense of possibility, and that his desire for success was largely a desire to impress his girlfriend. Wounded male pride in his sense of artistic failure eventually convinced him he had to break things off while she silently cursed him, jokingly sentencing him to 18 years of solitude in a playful reference to a Tai Kato film. Now he realises his foolishness and is filled with regret in having settled for a conventional middle-class life as a husband and father.

Marina, meanwhile, is feeling something much the same in trying to achieve closure on the past before she becomes a mother. After breaking up with Tatsuo, she drifted through nude modelling and ended up the trophy wife of a wealthy man she doesn’t love, pegging her hopes on material comfort and hoping that love will come later. “I’m glad you’re happy now” a bar owner and former Instagram fan tries to congratulate her, but all Marina can do is smile sadly and ask her similarly troubled companion if happy is what she looks.    

“I’m not young anymore, I can’t live for a dream” Tatsuo accepts, but living on a dream is all they’re doing, recalling the time when they were “modern lovers” in Tokyo kidding themselves that they were urban sophisticates when perhaps all they did were the kinds of things unsophisticated suburbanites do like hang out at batting cages and go to barbecue restaurants. It’s too late to turn back now, but the past is a difficult trap to escape and perhaps what they long for is not so much the love cut off in its prime but a return to the possibilities of youth. Meeting again reawakens the desire for something more out of life than life may now have to give them, but this is day that youth ends, hitting the end of the road in a slow car crash of realisation that regret is the price of age.


The Modern Lovers was screened as part of this year’s Osaka Asian Film Festival.

Original trailer (no subtitles)

Retro hit Love You, Tokyo by Akira Kurosawa (not that one!) & Los Primos which recurs frequently throughout the film

Woman of the Photographs (写真の女, Takeshi Kushida, 2020)

(C)PYRAMID FILM

“We can only love ourselves through others’ eyes” according to an increasingly obsessed young woman desperately trying to “fix” her image of herself through retouching her photo. An inverted take on Woman of the Dunes, Woman of the Photographs (写真の女, Shashin no Onna) sees the world of a bug-obsessed photographer with a talent for “improving” on reality disturbed by the arrival of a mysterious dancer who falls from a tree in the forest into his previously ordered existence.  

Kai (Hideki Nagai), a middle-aged man dressed in an old fashioned white suit, operates a small photo studio taking official photos for things like funerals and omiai arranged marriages. As we later find out from his only regular human contact, the funeral director from across the road (Toshiaki Inomata), Kai’s mother died in childbirth and his father opened this shop to support his son. Kai has taken over but has an intense fear of women and lives alone save for his pet praying mantis with whom he regularly eats his preferred dinner of microwave pizza. 

It’s on a regular bug hunting trip that Kai is struck by the beautiful figure of Kyoko (Itsuki Otaki) tumbling out of a nearby tree and causing herself manageable if painful injuries including a nasty gash along her collarbone. Not wanting to go to a hospital, Kyoko gets Kai to take her to a pharmacy and patches herself up, later accompanying him home where he takes some photos of her to post on her Instagram, retouching them to get rid of the traces of wounds. Despite Kai’s silence, she manages to convince him to have dinner with her in a nearby restaurant and later to allow her to stay the night, after which she becomes a more permanent fixture in his life. 

A former dancer now Instagram star, Kyoko originally thinks nothing of getting Kai to clean up her photos to rid them of unsightliness, but is mildly disturbed to watch him do it. In a reverse Dorian Gray effect, Kai must scar the image to repair it, scrubbing away traces of unwanted “reality” in an act which seems to contradict the true nature of photography. “A good lie can make people happy” according to the funeral director who regularly uses Kai’s services to create suitably solemn photos of the suddenly deceased, but Kyoko isn’t so sure. Ever since she asked Kai to soften her reality, her followers have begun to desert her and she’s losing her lucrative sponsorship deals. The apologetic lady from the agency points out that she’s diverging from the “image” her fans expect from her and if she wants to keep them she’ll have to be the Kyoko they want her to be. 

Kyoko doesn’t quite like that, she’d like to be more authentic. Hisako (Toki Koinuma), meanwhile, an unexpected regular to the studio, is of the opposite opinion. In her view, retouching the photo allows her to be more herself, reflect her true essence through manipulating her image. Asking if she hasn’t got things the wrong way round, Kyoko wonders if the men she’s sending them to will be confused or disappointed that the photo and the reality don’t match but Hisako counters her that a man falling in love with her idealised self would only bring her closer to it. The self reflected in the eyes of others is the true self and only through others’ eyes can you find self love, according to Hisakao. Ironically, Kyoko has been looking for something similar through her Instagram success, but begins to resent the extent to which it is changing her, encouraging her to hide the parts of herself others might find ugly in order to gain acceptance. 

Deciding not to retouch the photos, however, has the opposite effect. Her fans love her again, bowled over by her authenticity, but at the same time perhaps she’s engaging in a strange kind of self-exploitation. Her wounds will, after all heal. Could she be tempted into a life of continued self-harm just for likes? Kyoko begins to lose her sense of self, as if she doesn’t quite exist online or off, caught between the “real” and the “ideal”.

Kai, meanwhile, remains silent but also captivated by the conflicted Kyoko. His life has been one of isolation, afraid of female touch and contented only among his insects. Yet like Kyoko he’s learning that scars can be beautiful because wounds are a sign of life. Waking up to connection and desire, he learns a different lesson from the lifecycle of the praying mantis realising that the male’s greatest pleasure lies in surrendering its body so the female can continue in life and creation. He no longer fears being devoured, but honours the true connection of mutual exchange. Inverting the conclusions of Woman of the Dunes, Kai finds himself liberated not by a sense of simplicity in life but by its complication, accepting all the richness it has to offer in joy and pain, engaging in his own strange mating dance as a man with a camera capturing his subject in all of her essential beauty. 


Woman of the Photographs was screened as part of this year’s Osaka Asian Film Festival.

Original trailer (English subtitles)

Going the Distance (かぞくへ, Yujiro Harumoto, 2016)

going the distance posterThe “family drama” is often regarded as Japanese cinema’s representative genre, but in the consumerist atmosphere of the late 20th century the family itself became an increasingly discredited concept. Nevertheless, it remains true that discriminating against those who have no family is the last acceptable prejudice with orphans in particular unfairly viewed as somehow untrustworthy, rejected by mainstream society, and denied both work and the possibility of starting a family of their own. The hero of Yujiro Harumoto’s debut feature Going the Distance (かぞくへ, Kazoku e) thinks he has everything finally back on track with a steady job and an engagement to a middle-class secretary, but his good heart coupled with his precarious social status seem set to ensure his new start is a non-starter.

Raised in an orphanage in the Goto Islands, Asahi (Shinichiro Matsuura) now lives in Tokyo with this fiancée Kaori (Yumi Endo) for whom he has given up his boxing career to work as a trainer in a gym. Though Kaori, superficially at least, does not care that Asahi is a man with no family, she is a little preoccupied about how it’s going to look that his “family table”  at the reception will be largely unoccupied because he’s only planning on inviting his “brother” from the orphanage, Hiroto (Masahiro Umeda), and his wife.

Hiroto still lives in Goto and works as a fisherman. Hoping to help him out, Asahi sets him up with a man from his gym, Kita (Nobu Morimoto), who is opening a restaurant specialising in super fresh fish. The meeting goes extremely well and earns Hiroto a hefty contract that convinces him he needs to take out a loan to get a bigger boat. Unfortunately, however, Kita turns out to be a crook and Hiroto ends up well out of pocket, not only for the loan but for all the fish he never gets paid for.

Feeling intensely guilty and somewhat responsible, Asahi wants to do everything he can to put things right for Hiroto, even suggesting to Kaori that they postpone the wedding so that he can give part of the money they’ve saved to help take care of his debts. As predicted, Kaori is not happy about the idea, not least because she’s repeatedly explained to Asahi that she needs to get married as soon as possible because she wants her grandmother, who is suffering with dementia, to be able to attend the wedding while she’s still well enough to know what’s going on.

Unbeknownst to Asahi, one of the reasons Kaori is so keen on her grandmother attending is that her mother almost certainly won’t. Despite telling Asahi that her mother is lukewarm on the idea but coming round, the truth is that she won’t even talk to her, rudely rejecting the invitation and vowing that she’s no interest in seeing her daughter throw her life away on a man with no family and no prospects. In fact, Kaori’s mother crassly makes a point of sending her omiai photos for potential arranged marriages to more “suitable” men – ones from “good families” matching her own class background. Kaori wastes no time in calling her a “bigot”, accusing her of indulging in an outdated and offensive prejudice against the orphaned that regards them as untrustworthy because they have no history and are not anchored to anyone who might be held responsible for their actions.

Yet, despite her anger towards her mother Kaori is not quite free of those same prejudices, snapping back at Asahi that he wouldn’t understand what she’s going through because he had no parents of his own. She keeps the drama a secret from him to avoid having to admit that her family oppose the marriage solely because he is an orphan, partly wanting to spare his feelings and partly aware that Asahi is a good and noble man who might choose to absent himself rather than force her to choose between the man she loves and her family.

Meanwhile, Asahi does something similar in refusing to confide in Kaori about everything that’s going on with Hiroto, partly out of guilt and embarrassment, and partly out of shame in knowing that he is on some level betraying her by choosing to save Hiroto rather than prioritise their marriage. He wants to make things right, put them back to the way they were before, but he has an impossible choice – either reject his responsibility to his brother who is also a good and kind man and would not want to cause him trouble in his relationship, or neglect his new responsibilities to his soon-to-be-wife.

Unfortunately, the couple elect to go on deceiving one another, intending to protect but causing only more harm. It may be the case that they’ve rushed into marriage because of Kaori’s grandmother’s precarious health and Asahi’s hopes for a solid family foundation, but their previously happy relationship is eventually eroded by a gradual disillusionment born of refusing to rely on each other, continuing to fight separate battles rather than combine their efforts to fight them together. Faced with the realisation that he may have ruined his relationship by his own foolishness in trying to help a friend with a problem that was really none of his responsibility, Asahi begins to reject Hiroto, giving up on the idea of “family” in its entirety in mistaken resentment towards his brother for a series of decisions that were entirely his own. Nevertheless, what he discovers is that true family isn’t always about blood ties but about people who will always be there for you no matter what you do. Asahi wasn’t quite as alone as he thought he was, but only by admitting his mistakes, accepting his responsibilities, and finally allowing himself to confide in and rely on others can he truly begin to build a family anchored by something deeper than blood.


Going the Distance was screened as part of the 2019 Five Flavours Film Festival.

Original trailer (English subtitles)

A Boy and Sungreen (보희와 녹양, Ahn Ju-young, 2018)

A boy and sungreen poster 1Figuring out who you are is a normal part of growing up, but if you start to suspect that parts of the puzzle have been kept from you it can become an even more complicated business. The hero of Ahn Ju-young’s delightfully charming debut A Boy and Sungreen (보희와 녹양, Boheewa Nokyang) thought he was doing OK. Maybe he worried that he was a little bit weedy and resented being picked on by the snooty kids at school, but he always had his good friend Nok-yang (Kim Ju-a) to hide behind and she always had his back. Realising that his mum (Shin Dong-mi) may have a new romance on the cards entirely destabilises his worldview, sends his anxiety into overdrive, and reawakens a series of as yet unresolved abandonment issues resulting from losing his father at a young age.

What Bo-hee (Ahn Ji-ho) discovers on “running away” to visit a woman he kind of remembers might be his half-sister, is that his mother might have lied to him and the father he thought was dead might actually still be alive. Together with his best friend Nok-yang, he resolves to investigate and find out if his father is still out there somewhere, if he still thinks of him, what sort of man he might be, and, crucially, why he chose to abandon his son. Still upset with his mother and childishly resentful, Bo-hee avoids going home and installs himself at his “half-sister” Nam-hee’s (Kim So-ra), an air hostess who turns out to be a cousin temporarily taken in by Bo-hee’s mum when she ran away from home as a teenager, where is he is cared for by her surprisingly supportive boyfriend Sung-wook (Seo Hyun-woo).

Tellingly, Sung-wook is also an orphan with no family, raised in an orphanage with no parental models yet easily slipping into a positive paternal role. Both Bo-hee and Nok-yang are being raised in single parent families, Bo-hee believing until recently that his father had died, while Nok-yang lost her mother in childbirth and lives with her salty grandma and distant father. In conservative Korean society they each experience a degree of stigma for not having the “full” complement of parents with some of the snooty kids at school even assuming that’s why they’re friends, but the pair largely rejoice in each other’s company and have learned to pay them no mind.

Meanwhile, Bo-hee is experiencing strange anxiety-like attacks which eventually turn out to be something more serious, but neatly underline his intense adolescent confusion. Finding out his mother has a boyfriend not only forces him to confront his father’s absence, but also deepens the sense of anxious rootlessness he feels as someone without an extended family network. As Nok-yang somewhat insensitively puts it, what if the boyfriend turns out to be an “evil stepmother” and pushes him out of his family home, where will he go then? That kind of thinking is what leads him to track down Nam-hee, “certain” that she won’t turn him away because, he believes, they share the same father.

Despite maintaining an intense belief in the power of blood connection, Bo-hee remains distrustful of the idea of family and uncertain in his own identity. Even his name, which is really just “Boy” like the unnamed protagonist of a young adult novel, bothers him in that is uncomfortably close to slightly rude word, not to mention being somewhat unusual. Nok-yang has an unusual name too, but hers has a lovely, if sad, story behind it about her dad seeing rays of sunshine through the trees on the way home from the hospital and deciding to name her after that, whereas Bo-hee’s seems to be random. Thanks to his quest to track down his dad, Bo-hee finally comes to understand the meaning behind his name and accept himself for himself rather than longing to be just like everyone else.

Like all small children, Bo-hee thought everything that happened in his life was somehow his fault, that his dad left because of something he did or that there was just something wrong with him that his dad couldn’t love. What he realises is that his father’s decision was his father’s and nothing to do with him. It wasn’t his fault that his father left and there is nothing about him that means anyone else in his life is likely to leave without warning. In a roundabout way, looking for his dad helps to rebuild a sense of the family he didn’t think he had, becoming more secure in his relationship with his mother, bonding with Sung-wook and Nam-hee, and remembering that whatever happens he and Nok-yang will always be there for each other.


A Boy and Sungreen was screened as part of the 2019 London Korean Film Festival.

International trailer (English subtitles)

A Bedsore (욕창, Shim Hyejung, 2019)

bedsore posterFamily is supposed to be about mutual responsibility, according to oldest daughter Ji-soo, but in a culture as fiercely patriarchal as Korea’s, there may be differing interpretations of what “responsibility” entails. Shim Hyejung’s A Bedsore (욕창, Yokchang) uses the titular ailment as a metaphor for the festering wounds at the centre of familial relationships, an irritating and potentially dangerous pressure ulcer born of something sitting too long in the same place unaddressed and unresolved. Intensely lonely and unable to connect, the family members struggle with the demands of what it means to be a family and find themselves more often than not guilty and resentful in their filial obligations.

Grandma Gil-soon (Jeon Gukhyang) is bedridden following a cerebral haemorrhage and largely unable to communicate though obviously very much present. The family has hired a live-in carer/housekeeper to look after her as well take care of the domestic tasks because retired patriarch Chang-sik (Kim Jonggu) is a traditional sort which means he’s entirely unable to fend for himself. The trouble starts when Mrs Yu (Kang Aesim) discovers Gil-soon has a nasty bedsore on her back. Rather than deal with it himself, Chang-chik rings his daughter Ji-soo (Kim Doyoung) to come and look in on them, but despite her obvious distress in worrying that perhaps her mother is not receiving proper care and may be in pain, she is also dealing with a moody teenage daughter and a husband who may be having an affair. She wonders why her dad always calls her and not her brother Moon-soo (Kim Jae-rok) or his wife. And then there’s the golden boy middle brother Yong-soo who was the apple of his father’s eye but has made a mess of his life and is currently living as an undocumented migrant in America after doing a midnight flit.

The most obvious problem in the Kang household is that Chang-sik is a product of his times. He does almost nothing to care for his wife and fully expects that a woman will take care of it and him. When there is a problem, he summons Ji-soo and/or his daughter-in-law, never his son, and expects them to take over. He cannot cook or clean and “requires” a woman to fulfil those functions for him so that he can live like a man. This attitude has perhaps contributed to his ongoing confusion regarding Mrs Yu with whom he is on friendlier terms than might be wise for someone who is technically an employee. Somewhere between authoritarian father and jealous suitor, he grows resentful towards her for going out on her days off and irrationally irritated when he realises she may have a boyfriend, eventually leaving Gil-soon on her own to spy on Mrs Yu in a quiet bar where she likes to go dancing.

Though we might initially feel sorry for Chang-sik because he seems so incredibly lonely now that he can no longer communicate with his wife, he quickly loses our sympathy as we realise that it is largely self-pity and that as lonely as he might be, it must be so much worse for Gil-soon who is often left all alone in her room with no stimulation though we can clearly see that she is present and able to engage with the world around her. Mrs Yu does her best to look after her, but is not a trained carer just someone in desperate need of a job. Being an undocumented Korean-Chinese migrant worker also places her in an awkward position with the miserly Chang-sik who, while not a bad man or abusive employer, does perhaps think he has more leverage to exploit her because of her precarious immigration status. We wonder what Gil-soon’s married life must have been like, and if Chang-sik thinks of her as an individual or merely as a woman to be swapped out and replaced now that she can no longer serve him, especially when he announces a bizarre plan to divorce his wife and marry Mrs Yu to make her a legal citizen and ensure she stays in the household.

That particular bombshell obviously does not go down well with the kids, particularly Ji-soo on whom most of the additional burden of care has fallen. She tries to reason with her dad, but he doubles down on the patriarchal norms, telling her it’s all her fault for not pulling her weight as a daughter while she quite reasonably reminds him he had three children but expects her drop everything and sit by her mother’s bedside 24/7. Like her parents and Mrs Yu, Ji-soo is also lonely even within her own family, pushed out by her teenage daughter who keeps bringing her “friend who is a boy” home to play, and her husband who keeps “working late” and takes private phone calls from a young woman. Meanwhile, Moon-soo’s wife does her best to keep the peace between her husband and the father with whom he so obviously does not get on. Though he feels sorry for his mother, Moon-soo seems to be over this whole family thing and ready to sever ties, but that doesn’t stop the couple having a mini panic about the inheritance if their dad goes ahead and marries Mrs Yu after their mum passes away.

The bedsore becomes a metaphor for all the pent up pressures involved with living in a patriarchal social system which expects women to shoulder all domestic burdens. Even Mrs Yu is only working abroad because her husband in China had a stroke and her son can’t find work so she needs to send money home while someone else looks after her grandson. Chang-sik’s first reaction to Ji-soo’s suggestion that perhaps it might be time to think about putting Gil-soon into a home where she can be cared for properly is to ask “what about me?”, not outraged by the suggestion that he is failing in the duty of caring for his wife or seriously concerned for her welfare, but selfish and self-involved. In the end, Chang-sik will discover his house is full of smoke from a fire that’s been smouldering all these long years and dissipating it may take more than merely opening some windows to let it all air out.


A Bedsore was screened as part of the 2019 London Korean Film Festival.

Short interview with director Shim Hyejung from the Jeonju International Film Festival.

Our House (わたしたちの家, Yui Kiyohara, 2017)

our house posterIs 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)