Japanese indie has moved on of late, no longer content with deconstructing the modern family it now wants to take a good look at the modern marriage though Koji Segawa’s Swaying Mariko (たまゆらのマリ子, Tamayura no Mariko), for all of its copious darkness, may be a much more positive vision than might at first be thought. A tale of one woman’s gradual downward spiral into a world of violence, paranoia, and perversion Swaying Mariko’s Tokyo is one of icy silences and magnified spaces between people which seem to defy the otherwise cramped city streets. Loneliness and isolation are the twin forces which drive this spiral of resentment and anger but self-inflicted wounds quickly look for vengeance, usually in all the wrong places.
Mariko (Chise Ushio) is an ordinary middle-aged housewife with a young son, Riku, and an increasingly distant husband, Tomoharu (Keita Yamashina). By day, she works at a batting centre which is less a place for aspiring baseball players to practice their swings than for angry young men who want to hit things very hard. Consequently, her workplace is often unpleasant but aside from the aggressive conduct of the customers, her creepy boss has been making a point of sexually harassing her when not peeping on the girls’ changing rooms or actively having casual sex with one of Mariko’s colleagues in the rec-room. Convinced Tomoharu is having an affair, she takes to stalking him – on foot and online, even deciding to set up CCTV so she can spy on him when he invites an old uni friend to the house when he knows she’ll be out.
Mariko is not the only one, everybody (save perhaps her “babbling” workmate) seems to be gently seething with repressed rage. The batting cages are full of strung out salarymen in suits who are keen to raise their voices and gesture threateningly at timid employees who are very definitely not employed to be substitute softballs for their verbal bats. Mariko’s coping mechanism is her ascerbic interior monologue in which she passes judgement on everyone and everything, making the fair point that her image conscious colleague who won’t date short guys even if they’re rich probably isn’t going to bag a wealthy husband by providing sexual favours to the seedy boss at a rundown batting centre.
Rebuffing the timid colleague’s attempts to connect, Mariko repeatedly telephones a friend from a previous job who refuses all her calls. It seems Mariko has no other friends or family to turn to and is entirely alone with her marital worries which have placed a wedge between herself and her husband. The woman who never answers her calls along with another former colleague becomes a kind of inner chorus voicing Mariko’s own constant thoughts of inadequacy – that her friends don’t like her, that her husband no longer finds her attractive, and that she is a woman with no possible future to look forward to.
Mariko’s fantasy revenge is violent, bloody, and grotesque but possibly not so much as the fact that she actively gets off on savouring its taste. Tellingly, her temporary madness seems to be a common phenomenon as the salesman seems to know when Mariko attempts to buy the sharpest knife he has available and he wonders if he should sell it to her. A violent encounter sends Mariko reeling into a kind of maddening dance in which she decides to throw off all semblance of civility and behaves without restraint – hindering rather than helping an ungrateful woman, joining in with a dance in the street, throwing a bucket over the head of a stranger. When she sees violence being done on a seemingly innocent boy by a pack of thugs she doesn’t intervene but watches, catching up to one of the perpetrators to make him a surprising offer.
Mariko’s madness may be real or imagined but it’s far from an isolated case. Tomoharu’s secrets weren’t the ones she expected and were, in part, caused by her own suspicions and determined silence. Mariko may hate her part-time job (at least this current one) but her husband’s suggestion she give it up to be a full time wife and mother has her inwardly seething, her husband apparently reduced to a shivering coward by the temerity of a woman seeking fulfilment outside as well as inside the home. Ultimately their problems amount to a series of misunderstandings which can only be cleared up by a full and frank discussion the like of which is culturally taboo. Mariko may look like she’s exorcised a demon after dancing through her mad fever dream, but if she did then it perhaps migrated rather than disappeared, eagerly waiting to pounce on the next lonely soul being squeezed in the urban wringer.
Screened at Raindance 2017.