Topless (トップレス, Eiji Uchida, 2008)

toplessFollowing the surreal horror film The Greatful Dead and cynical industry exposé Lowlife Love, Eiji Uchida is not generally known for straightforward naturalism but his 2008 movie Topless (トップレス) maybe among the most refreshingly straightforward, naturalistic depictions of lesbian life in modern Japan. Inspired by the writings of Pudding Watanabe, Topless, despite the title and suggestive poster, immediately jettisons preconceptions and sets about exploring the lives of young men and women in the city, just trying to make it in an often hostile society.

Forthright Natsuko (Mina Shimizu) splits up with her high school sweetheart Tomomi (Erika Okuda) but continues to pine after her even once Tomomi reveals that she’s got herself a boyfriend and plans to try the conventional life for a while. This heavy emotional blow provokes a kind of crisis in the otherwise certain Natsuko who finds herself musing on the fate on older lesbians and expressing sympathy for those who decide it’s just easier to enter a marriage of convenience than try to live alone. For the moment, Natusko lives with her understanding flatmate, Koji (So Sakamoto), who’s been nursing a long time crush on her even if he knows she’s gay and it’s impossible. A chance meeting with a high school girl, Kana (Aya Omasa), who’s come to Tokyo to find the mother who abandoned her to run off with a lesbian lover ten years ago only deepens Natsuko’s contemplative mood as she starts to wonder about where her life will take her if she chooses not to follow the accepted path.

Topless is less about romance than it is about acceptance and identity. Natsuko maybe a member of her university’s lesbian society but she’s about as far from a flag waver as it’s possible to be and just wants to live her life without thinking too much about the big stuff. Bar one woman (a new addition and not a student) the other girls are also just hanging round to have fun, aren’t particularly interested in activism and don’t feel themselves to be part of a movement defined by their sexuality. Natsuko certainly refuses to be defined by hers though her recent falling out with Tomomi has shaken her to the core and forced her into a consideration of her own hopes and desires for the future.

Tomomi claims to still love Natsuko but also that it “can’t be helped” because they’re both women and it’s just not possible. Natsuko tries to come to terms with her friend’s decision whilst nursing a broken heart but struggles to overcome her feelings of jealously towards Tomomi’s new boyfriend. Koji, Natsuko’s roommate, can’t understand why a lesbian would marry a man but being a man himself he can’t appreciate the societal necessities which make trying to live a life outside the mainstream particularly hard for women. As Natsuko points out, women earn less and living is expensive, it’s difficult to live out and proud in a hostile society, and then there’s the fear of growing old without children or an extended family network to fallback on. Though she sympathises with all of these factors on an intellectual level and then eventually even contemplates trying out life with a man herself,  it’s not something Natsuko could ever do and a part of her can never forgive Tomomi for doing it even if she does understand why someone might.

Kana’s quest for her long lost mother gets lost between the meatier subplots but proves enlightening in the unexpected bond between the troubled schoolgirl and the shaken if confident Natsuko. Still nursing deep scars from her abandonment, Kana claims to hate lesbians but grows to like Natsuko, the only person willing to help her track down her mother in a totally unfamiliar world. Despite Koji’s protestations that Natsuko will be angry if she hears any of Kana’s anti-gay sentiments, she listens patiently to Kana’s complaints stopping only to tell her she understands why she feels that way but that she also thinks she’s wrong. Trying to help Kana understand why her mother made the decisions that she did and see that there’s nothing wrong with two women loving each other, Natsuko changes hearts and minds just by being patient and kind.

In the conventional sense Topless offers no happy endings but it does advocate first and foremost for a kind of self acceptance and finally allowing old wounds to scar over, closed but not forgotten. Normalising lesbian life with ease, Uchida proceeds with a straightforward approach which sidesteps the obvious in order to provide a more nuanced portrait of life and love among the young people of Tokyo each trying to navigate the difficult process of learning to live as an independent person constrained by social conventions. Admittedly low budget but tastefully done and anchored by a standout performance from Mina Shimizu, Topless is a refreshingly down to earth look at gay life in the big city which refuses to give in preconceptions and expectations.


Short clip from the film (English subtitles)

Tokyo Serendipity (恋するマドリ, Akiko Ohku, 2007)

tokyo-serendipityCities are often serendipitous places, prone to improbable coincidences no matter how large or densely populated they may be. Tokyo Serendipity (恋するマドリ, Koisuru Madori) takes this quality of its stereotypically “quirky” city to the limit as a young art student finds herself caught up in other people’s unfulfilled romance only to fall straight into the same trap herself. Its tale may be an unlikely one, but director Akiko Ohku neatly subverts genre norms whilst resolutely sticking to a mid-2000s indie movie blueprint.

Yui Aoki (Yui Aragaki) is in search of a new apartment. She had been living in an unusual old fashioned building with beautiful stained-glass windows, but her sister’s in line for a shotgun marriage and if that weren’t trouble enough the apartment is set for demolition. Living on her own for the very first time, Yui moves into a smallish modern apartment in a building filled with various eccentric residents.

One in particular catches Yui’s attention – her mysterious upstairs neighbour, Takashi (Ryuhei Matsuda). By coincidence, Yui ends up working with Takashi at his lab where she learns he’s still broken up about a girlfriend that left him flat without even a word of goodbye. Remembering she left something behind at her old place she ends up meeting the new tenant, Atsuko (Rinko Kikuchi), and striking up a friendship with her over a shared interest in homemade furnishings. The coincidences continue as Yui discovers she and Atsuko have accidentally swapped apartments! Through this odd chain of events Yui also figures out that Atsuko is Takashi’s long lost love, but is hopelessly trapped in the middle, unsure of whether she should reveal this information to either party. Of course, her developing feelings for both Atsuko and Takashi place her in a series of difficult positions.

Tokyo Serendipity was sponsored by an interior design company and so it’s no surprise that the film makes quite a lot out of its production design. The fashion choices are very much of the time and favour quirky, individual aesthetics rather than an Ikea-esque off the peg minimalism. The original apartment which is soon to by bulldozed is an artist’s dream with its hidden fireplace, old fashioned furniture, stained glass windows and well lit interior. Broadly inspirational in this regard, it’s a thrifty kind of homestyle which prizes recycled materials and repurposed furnishings as opposed to the trendy high price surroundings of other parts of the city.

Like many other films of its kind from this era, Tokyo Serendipity adopts a natural, if occasionally surreal, approach filmed with a deadpan camera. The film’s one repeated large scale gag – a group of lucha libre wrestlers who work as removal men during the day, is a good example of this as their not improbable existence somehow seems oddly funny. They drop things but only in the ring – so they say, each of them well built men treating Yui’s precious goods as daintily as children using real china at a tea party. The humour could best be described as subtle, yet does succeed in raising a smile here and there.

Smiling turns out to be the film’s main message. In fact Ohku even states that her intention in making the film was solely to leave people with a smile of their faces – something which she broadly achieves. Atsuko, a slightly lost middle aged woman, claims she became an architect as she wanted to build a house with everybody smiling – something Yui echoes as she comes to a few conclusions of her own nearing the end of the film. However, Atsuko’s desire for harmony in all things is one she’s never been able to fulfil as childhood abandonment has left her with lingering commitment issues. Simply put, she always leaves first. Interestingly enough, Yui’s burgeoning romance takes a backseat to her growing friendship with Atsuko and a half-formed acknowledgment of middle-aged regrets she’s still to young to fully understand.

Despite amassing almost all of the conventional romantic comedy/drama motifs from a last minute dash to the airport and misdirected letters to an embarrassing scene where a relative is mistaken for a lover, Ohku rejects the romantic model as her central character wisely recognises exactly where she stands in this awkward situation and makes a sensible decision motivated by the best interests of both of her friends. Straightforwardly indie in style, Ohku keeps the quirk on a low simmer but manages to make her heightened reality seem perfectly natural. An unusual coming of age film trapped inside an indie romance, Tokyo Serendipity is like one of the tiny hidden spaces the film seems to like so much, though upon opening the door some will be more impressed with what they find than others.


Original trailer (no subtitles)