Narratage (ナラタージュ, Isao Yukisada, 2017)

Narratge poster 1Isao Yukisada made his name with the jun-ai landmark Crying Out Love in the Centre of the World back in 2004. Adapted from a best selling novel (which had also been adapted as a TV drama around the same time), Crying Out Love was the epitome of a short lived genre in which melancholy, lovelorn and lonely middle-aged heroes looked back on the lost love of their youths. Jun-ai has never really gone away though it might not be so popular as it once was, but the focus has perhaps shifted and in an unexpected direction. Narratage (ナラタージュ), once again adapted from a best selling novel though this time one by an author still in her early 20s when the book was written (incidentally smack in the middle of the jun-ai boom), is another sad story of frustrated love though in contrast to the jun-ai norm, its tragedies revolve around loves which were tested and subsequently failed, leaving the broken hearted romantics trapped within their own tiny bubbles of nostalgia.

The heroine, Izumi (Kasumi Arimura), narrates her tale from three distinct periods of her young life speaking from the perspective of her still young self now living as a lonely office worker. A lonely high school misfit, she found herself drawn to a sensitive teacher, Hayama (Jun Matsumoto), who rescued her from despair through an invitation to join the drama club. Relying on him ever more, she began regularly visiting his office for guidance and the pair bonded over their shared love of cinema. On graduation Izumi decided to declare her love, but earned a sad story in return and resolved to move on with her life. Then in the second year of university, she gets an unexpected phone call, calling her back to help out with a play at the school’s culture festival.

Yukisada begins with a rather unsubtle metaphor in which the older Izumi lovingly fondles an antique pocket watch which has long since stopped ticking. 20-something Izumi apparently has very little in her life, a pang of melancholy envy passing her face as she talks to a friend on the phone at home with a new baby while she prepares for another lonely night of (unnecessary) overtime. Where the heroes of jun-ai obsess over true love lost, Izumi struggles to face the fact that the man she loved did not, could not, love her in the way that she wanted him to. There is, of course, something deeply inappropriate in the awkward relationship between Izumi and Hayama who are a teenage student and her teacher respectively – connect as they might, there are moments when a line is crossed even while Izumi is still a schoolgirl which is in no way justified by the presentation of their (non)romance as a natural consequence of their mutual suffering.

Hayama and Izumi are presented as equals but they aren’t and never could be. As if to continue the chain, university era Izumi gets a love confession of her own from old classmate Ono (Kentaro Sakaguchi) who has apparently been carrying a torch for her all this time. Ono’s love, like Izumi’s, is originally generous and altruistic – he understands her unrequited affection for Hayama and perhaps even sympathises, but once Izumi decides to try and make things work with someone who loves her it all starts to go wrong. Ono is jealous, possessive, desperate. He demands to inspect her phone, insists she erase Hayama from her mind and devote herself only to him. Izumi, sadly, goes along with all of this, even when her attempts to turn to Ono for protection when afraid and alone are petulantly refused. When the inevitable happens and she decides to try and sort things out with Hayama, Ono tries to exert an authority he doesn’t really have, ordering her to bow to him (literally), and harping on about all the hard work he personally has put into their relationship which, he feels, she doesn’t really appreciate while berating her for not really loving him enough. As it turns out, neither of Izumi’s romantic options is particularly healthy or indeed viable.

At one particularly unsubtle moment, Izumi (alone) attends a screening of Naruse’s Floating Clouds – another film about a couple who fail to move on from a failed love affair though their struggle is ultimately more about the vagaries of the post-war world than it is about impossible love. Meanwhile the school play is to be A Midsummer Night’s Dream which is also about misplaced and unrequited loves which spontaneously sort themselves out thanks to some fairy magic and a night in a confusing forest. No magic powers are going to sort out Izumi’s broken heart for her. Like the pocket watch, her heart has stopped ticking and her romantic outlook appears to be arrested at the schoolgirl level. She and Hayama maybe equally damaged people who save and damn each other in equal measure, but the central messages seem to be that difficult, complicated, and unresolved loves and the obsessive sadness they entail produce nothing more than inescapable chains of loneliness. Simplistic as it may be, Izumi at least is beginning to find the strength to set time moving once again prompted perhaps by another incoming bout of possibly requitable love lingering on the horizon.


International trailer (English subtitles)

Asako I & II (寝ても覚めても, Ryusuke Hamaguchi, 2018)

asako I & 2 posterDualities define the perpetually submerged worlds of Ryusuke Hamaguchi’s Happy Hour followup Asako I & II (寝ても覚めても, Netemo Sametemo). Waking and sleeping, fantasy and reality, past and present, presence and absence, love and sadness. Asako (Erika Karata), an ordinary young woman of the contemporary era, finds herself in a similar position to many of the heroines of contemporary Japanese literature in that she has no idea what she really wants out of life and is essentially torn between a series of idealised lives snatched from movies and magazines. Yet she is also haunted by a broken heart, arrested in a state of perpetual adolescence thanks to an early disappointment in love in which remains horribly unresolved.

As a university student in Osaka, Asako attends a photo exhibition dedicated to one of the few books put out by legendary Japanese photographer Shigeo Gocho titled “Self and Others”. Fascinated by an eerie picture of two little girls dressed identically, one slightly taller than the other, Asako’s attention is eventually caught by a striking young man. She leaves the exhibition and follows him until he eventually turns and faces her. Firecrackers some teenagers had been struggling to light suddenly explode around his feet. He strides over to her, asks for her name, and then leans in for a kiss – at least, that’s the way he later tells it to a disbelieving friend who points out that “no one meets like that”. An arty type in dungarees and shaggy hair, the young man’s name is “Baku” (Masahiro Higashide) – he uses the character for wheat (his dad was big into grains) but it’s also a homonym for explosion which a is key indication of the unpredictable excitement he comes to represent for Asako as her uni best friend Haruyo (Sairi Ito) attempts to warn her by insisting that Baku is the heartbreaking type and whatever she has with him is destined to end in tears.

Haruyo’s prediction comes to pass when Baku steps out one day to buy some shoes and never returns. A brokenhearted Asako makes her way to Tokyo and begins working a cafe but two and a bit years later, she is stunned to find “Baku” wearing a suit and working in an office. He doesn’t remember her and says his name’s Ryohei, but Asako can’t shake the association which is both attractive and repellent in equal measure. Ryohei is smitten, he felt the connection too, but Asako doesn’t quite know what to do with this unfortunate coincidence.

Events repeat themselves with only mild distortions – Asako and Ryohei attend another Gocho photo exhibition though this time with Asako’s Tokyo best friend, Maya (Rio Yamashita). Rather than a motorcycle accident, Ryohei and Asako find and comfort each other after the 2011 earthquake and eventually become a couple, move in together, and even get a cat. Asako begins to fall for Ryohei, but can’t be sure her love for him isn’t really love for Baku refracted through a different lens. Baku, a man with a wandering heart, once told her he would always return no matter how long it might take. There’s a part of Asako that’s always waiting, held back, afraid to move and unwilling to acknowledge the death of her younger self as immortalised in the image of herself with Baku.

When Haruyo runs into Asako and Ryohei unexpectedly in Tokyo, she gives us our first indication that Ryohei really does look like Baku and the association isn’t just a projection of Asako’s romantic anxieties. Haruyo’s first words to Asako are that she hasn’t changed – they’re intended as a compliment, but Asako bristles. She feels as if she’s moved forward, matured, is preparing to enter a comfortable middle age with Ryohei at her side but deep down she knows she hasn’t. She’s still the naive student pining for a lost love that never cared enough about her to resolve itself. She worries she’s been playacting and that her relationship with Ryohei isn’t “real” even if she cares about him enough to have her feeling guilty for this mild form of betrayal.

Later, offered another possibility, Asako feels as if her life with Ryohei has been like a dream, or perhaps the only waking moment of her life. When Ryohei introduces a work friend to Maya as an excuse to get close to Asako, they watch a video of her performing a scene from Chekhov’s Three Sisters – a play famously about self delusion in which the fierce belief in an impossible future becomes the only thing which makes life possible. The climactic earthquake hits just as Ryohei is preparing to watch Maya perform in Ibsen’s The Wild Duck – the play which lays bare the playwright’s key tenet, that if you take away a man’s life lie you take away his happiness. Ryohei’s friend Kushihashi (Koji Seto) might rip into Maya’s “narcissistic” acting, denigrating her for attention seeking rather than baring her soul on stage, but Asako admires her determination and absolute certainty in her chosen goal, things she herself lacks.

Talked down by the soothing tones of practiced de-escalator Ryohei, Kushihashi is prompted to confess that his outburst was mostly out of jealously, that having given up his dreams of the stage for a conventional salaryman life he resented seeing someone else embrace theirs. Asako can’t decide which “dream” she wants – a life of fireworks and unpredictability with Baku for all the heartbreak it might bring, or one of gentle happiness with the good and kind Ryohei. A series of crises prompt her into making a clear choice – seemingly her first, though it may be too late. Real love is messy, painful, and ugly, but it’s beautiful too once you learn to see through the miasma of self delusion and romantic fantasy.


Screened as part of the 2018 BFI London Film Festival.

Original trailer (no subtitles)