Let Me Hear It Barefoot (裸足で鳴らしてみせろ, Riho Kudo, 2021)

“I can touch it if I reach out” one of the heroes of Riho Kudo’s second feature Let Me Hear It Barefoot (裸足で鳴らしてみせろ, Hadashi de Narashite Misero) claims as he narrates a fantasy trip to Iguazu Falls, but his tragedy is that he can not reach out and neither can his friend or really anyone in this suffocating enclave of moribund small-town Japan. As in her debut Orphan’s Blues, Kudo finds her heroes trapped with a space of artificial nostalgia and yearning for escape while in constant dialogue with Wong Kar-Wai’s melancholy romance Happy Together as the two young men process their frustrated desires not only for each other but for an end to the loneliness that defines each of their lives. 

Naomi (Shion Sasaki) is lonely in part because he feels trapped. Having dropped out of university he’s working in his father’s (Masahiro Komoto) recycling depot while his best friend and high school sweetheart Sakuko is about to move to Canada. He first catches sight of the enigmatic Maki (Tamari Suwa) at the local pool after trying to learn to swim to effect change in his life and later bonds with him along with a mysterious old woman, Midori (Jun Fubuki), who has lost her sight and claims to have travelled the world in her youth. What the boys later discover is that Midori had not been entirely honest in that her travels had been vicarious, related to her by a third party long since departed whom she did not want to forget. Following a health scare she tries to give Maki her savings telling him to travel the world in her stead but he soon discovers that she was sadly mistaken about amount she’d put away. Lacking the heart to tell her, Maki decides to use an old tape recorder to fake trips to famous places ironically mirroring her final confession that her friend had never travelled either but made all the stories up for her benefit. 

The tape recorder conceit of course directly recalls Happy Together as does the final destination of the Iguazu Falls while hinting at the unattainable freedom each of the young men yearns for as mediated by their desire to travel the world. “We can go anytime” Maki tries to convince Naomi in his mounting desperation though each of them on some level knows they will never leave nor escape their sense of loneliness. Maki describes himself as feeling as if he is trapped within a magnetic field, surrounded by people but unable to touch them. A man permanently at odds with his environment, Naomi feels the same but their feelings for each other are complex and confusing. In a repeated motif one reaches out to touch the other but suddenly pulls back, their repressed desire expressed only through increasingly intense play fighting until one is finally unable to go on with the subterfuge and unsuccessfully attempts to address their unresolved romantic tension. 

Much of their courtship occurs in Naomi’s converted garage bedsit, a space filled with unwanted relics of the past from countless VHS and discarded books to TVs and radios. The garage is his literal safe space, Naomi explaining to Maki that he feels the urge to collect things out of a sense of security that they are safe here even if they disappear from the outside world. “Memories will stay” Maki reminds him, but that’s not good enough for Naomi who ironically can only trust the things that he can touch. Preoccupied with a sense of loss he is unable to move forward, cannot take hold of himself or his desires wishing to preserve the past at all costs while Maki has learnt to live in the moment able to let go but adrift in the present. 

“We may not even be alive tomorrow” Naomi wails in desperation, feeling as if he’s running out of time while boxed in by his equally lonely, disappointed father as a vision of his future self worn down by small-town life and a persistent sense of futility. The two men are forever divided, literal glass standing between them in the closing scenes in which they can no longer touch even if they wished it. Small-town life is it seems the place dreams go to die as symbolised in Sakuko’s eventual defeated return, Naomi left only with resignation to the life he had rejected in an acceptance of the failure of his unfulfilled desires. “I don’t want to forget” he claims echoing Midori’s explanation for her mysterious tattoo while left only with the ironic words of Maki’s cassette tape in their melancholy echo of the romantic impossibilities of Happy Together, “we need to start over”. 


Let Me Hear It Barefoot streamed as part of this year’s Nippon Connection.

Images: (c)PFF Partners

Orphan’s Blues (オーファンズ・ブルース, Riho Kudo, 2018)

Orphan's Blues posterThe past becomes an irresistible trap for a collection of variously troubled souls in Riho Kudo’s Pia winning feature Orphan’s Blues (オーファンズ・ブルース). “Things change” the heroine laments, unable to keep up with the relentless passage of time as her memory begins to collapse in on itself, leaving only nostalgia behind. A poetic exploration of grief, rootlessness, and trauma, Kudo’s bold debut sends its fugitive protagonists on a sad road trip into the long buried past as they attempt to dig up their childhood innocence in escape from an intolerable present.

Emma (Yukino Murakami), a middle-aged woman making a living with a tiny book stand at the side of the road in a small town, has been experiencing unexplained moments of memory loss – forgetting to place a customer’s order, leaving taps on, repeating herself having forgotten that she’s asked this question several times before. Losing the present sends her back to thoughts of the past as evidenced by a picture of a pack of elephants drawn by her childhood friend, Yang (Yu Yoshii), with whom she grew up in the same orphanage. Longing for that same closeness, she decides to track him down but a visit to Chinatown proves fruitless, as does an attempt to call in at the last address she had. Determined to find out what happened to Yang, she reconnects with another friend, Van (Takuro Kamikawa), who is in the process of fleeing to Tahiti with his girlfriend Yuri (Nagiko Tsuji) after stealing some gangsters’ money. When that doesn’t work out they end up accompanying Emma to a small inn run by a woman, Luca (Tamaki Kuboso), who was once in a relationship with Yang, and where a mysterious young man, Aki (Shion Sasaki), is currently staying.

All of our protagonists, bar perhaps Yuri, have a prominent burn somewhere on their body. Emma’s is on her left shoulder – a scald mark she keeps rubbing at times of stress. Van has a scar from a cigarette burn on his right arm, while Luca has what looks like a brand where a wedding ring might once have been worn. Even Aki has some kind scar on his right wrist, conveniently hidden by his long-sleeved shirts. Each of these people is in some way connected by the absent Yang, desperately in search of him even if some perhaps are more aware than others what might have befallen their absent friend.

Luca, who has a series of elephant tattoos across the nape of her neck, recounts that Yang once told her that elephants separate from the pack after receiving a premonition of their deaths. To spare the others the suffering of seeing them pass away, they leave before they go. Yang, they posit, may have followed their example but if he has all he has done is provoke additional suffering among his confused friends. Emma struggles to remember, frustrated by her inability to stay in the present while being pulled towards the past, feeling as if she’s missing some vital clue which will explain everything.

Meanwhile, the tensions between the five residents at the inn ebb and flow. Yuri, who never knew Yang and is beginning to fear she and Van will never get to Tahiti after all, feels herself excluded from the ongoing drama. She resents the closeness between Van and Emma, irritated that only Emma knows how to calm him down in the midst of emotional meltdown, while wondering how long he’s going to keep her waiting in this strangely liminal space caught between a past she never knew and a possibly unattainable future.   

Waiting is however where they are. Van wants to go back, return to a happy place the three childhood friends once travelled and dig up something they buried but can no longer remember. Emma, confused, eventually finds herself rooted in a delusion of the past, unable to see the present clearly while Van is left with little choice other than to abandon himself to facilitate her temporary happiness. Scarred, they run from a disappointing future into childhood nostalgia unable to reconcile the adults they’ve become with the children they once were. Literally as well as figuratively orphaned, they remain adrift with no clear place to belong or return to. Subtle and poetic, Kudo’s beautifully lensed debut is an achingly melancholy piece but one which perhaps finds hope in the solidarity of the lost as much as it suggests there is no path forward for those who can only look back.


Orphan’s Blues screens in New York on July 28 as part of Japan Cuts 2019.

Original trailer (English subtitles)