Hold Me Back (私をくいとめて, Akiko Ohku, 2020)

“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)

SUMODO ~The Successors Of Samurai~ (相撲道~サムライを継ぐ者たち~, Eiji Sakata, 2020)

“Every day is a traffic accident” according to a sumo wrestler describing the motion of two men colliding each trying to shove the other out of a protected area. Often regarded as a quintessentially Japanese combat sport, sumo has also come in for its share of misconceptions sometimes mocked or dismissed as a pastime popular mainly among the elderly or else a source of comedy in which in two large men clumsily grapple with each other. It’s precisely these unfair stereotypes that Eiji Sakata’s documentary SUMODO ~The Successors Of Samurai~ (相撲道~サムライを継ぐ者たち~, Sumodo ~Samurai o tsugu monotachi~) hopes to correct in gaining unprecedented access to the usually secretive world of professional sumo. 

He does this largely through focussing on two very different sumo stables and two key tournaments, one at New Year and the other in May. Though he interviews several of the rikishi at each, he adopts two main subjects who eventually clash in the ring but otherwise avoids clear narrative for an overview of what it’s like to live as a professional sumo wrestler in the present day which is to say a lifestyle that is largely unchanged over hundreds of years. Perhaps surprisingly, he even stops to appreciate the way in which a sumo tournament has also become something of a fashion show in which an audience comes expressly to appreciate the traditional kimono modelled by the rikishi as they make their way towards the auditorium. Living communally at the stable where they train, sumo wrestlers are expected to dress in traditional clothing at all times and wear their hair in a traditional style. 

Their diet is of course strictly monitored in order to help them maintain their weight. At the second of the stables, Takadagawa, food is a particular issue one rikishi stating that the high quality of the cuisine is one reason he chose to train there and while the chef explains that he keeps the vegetable content high and is keen to encourage healthy, nutritious eating the stable master is also determined that the meals be tasty rather than an austere exercise in body building. Sumo wrestlers do nevertheless eat quite a lot, the director perhaps regretting his decision to take the rikishi from the first stable Sakaigawa out for Korean barbecue when they literally eat the place out of its entire stock of meat generating a bill for US$8000 for under 50 people. 

Even so, despite their size the sumo wrestlers are necessarily extremely fit and spend much of their time deliberately building muscle. Whereas Sakaigawa is more traditional in its rather austere outlook, the master at Takadagawa, a former rikishi himself, explains that the sport has in a sense changed in keeping with the modern society in that he’s moved away from an aggressive coaching style that some might regard as bullying or harassment towards something kinder that values endurance and perseverance. The contrast is also visible in the choice of the two protagonists, Goeido being much more the traditional image of a sumo wrestler with his rather intense demeanour and emphasis on manly stoicism, whereas Ryuden is a surprisingly cheerful man with a joyful laugh and aura of serenity. 

Yet even Goeido describes the tournament process as mentally and physically exhausting despite fighting only one bout a day. At one particular tournament he tears a muscle in his upper arm but refuses to have it strapped unwilling to expose his area of weakness to an opponent later criticising younger wrestlers for making too much fuss over injury advising them that they should remain stoical without complaint like “true men”. Despite his more progressive coaching style, the master of Takadagawa says something similar in regarding injuries as tests from god or else a clear sign that more training is necessary. Ryuden himself suffered recurrent problems from a broken pelvis that saw him temporarily demoted but worked his way back to health by concentrating on “the basics”, later advising younger rikishi that there’s no hurry what’s important is to keep pushing through and avoid giving up too easily. The spirit of sumo, however, never changes at least according to the closing text. Illuminating the sport’s ancient history and ties to shinto ritual through a brief animated sequence, Sakata is most interested in the everyday lives of sumo wrestlers and the physical, emotional toll the sport can take on their lives as they push their bodies to the absolute limit of their capabilities. 

SUMODO ~The Successors Of Samurai~ screens in Canberra (Oct. 31), Perth (Nov. 7), Brisbane (Nov. 14), Melbourne (Nov. 20/23) and Sydney (Nov. 26/28) as part of this year’s Japanese Film Festival Australia.

Original trailer (English subtitles)