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)

Tremble All You Want (勝手にふるえてろ, Akiko Ohku, 2017)

tremble all you want posterShojo manga has a lot to answer for when it comes to defining ideas of romance in the minds of its young and female readers. The heroines of Japanese romantic comedies are almost always shojo manga enthusiasts – the lovelorn lady at the centre of Christmas on July 24th Avenue even magics herself into a fantasy Lisbon to better inhabit the cute and innocent world of a manga she loved in childhood. The heroine of Tremble All You Want (勝手にふるえてろ, Katte ni Furuetero), Yoshika (Mayu Matsuoka), does something similar in creating an alternate fantasy world filled with intimate acquaintances each encouraging and invested in her ongoing quest to win the heart of a boy she loved in high school who became the hero of her personal interest only manga, The Natural Born Prince.

At 24 Yoshika is still obsessed with “Ichi” (Takumi Kitamura) who is forever number “One” in her affections. Working as an office lady in the accounts department, Yoshika’s fingers tip tap over the calculator all day long until she can finally go home and read about her favourite topic, extinct animals, on the internet before it’s time to head back to work. Because of her undying love for Ichi (whom she has not seen or heard from in many years), Yoshika has never had a boyfriend or engaged in “dating” – something which causes her a small amount of anxiety and embarrassment when considering the additional awkwardness of starting out at such a comparatively late age.

Yoshika’s dilemma reaches a crisis point when, much to her surprise, a colleague becomes interested in her. Kirishima (Daichi Watanabe), whom she rechristens number “Two”, is, like her, slightly shy and bumbling but also outgoing and with a need to say things out loud. Seeing as this is apparently the first time this has ever happened to Yoshika, she finds it very confusing – not least because she can’t decide if “dating” Kirishima is a betrayal of Ichi or if she is really ready to leave her Natural Born Prince behind.

The dilemma isn’t so much between man one and man two but between fantasy and reality, idealism and practicality. Yoshika, painfully shy, lives in a fantasy world of her own creation as we discover during a tentative, emotionally raw musical number in which she is forced to confront the fact that the reason she doesn’t know the names of any of the people we’ve seen her repeatedly engage with is that, despite her longing and her loneliness, she has never been able to pluck up the courage to actually speak to them. Thus they exist in her head as a series of nicknames, theoretical constructs of “friends” with whom to engage in (one-sided) conversations – a frighteningly relatable (if extreme) concept to the painfully shy. Deprived of her fluffy fantasy, Yoshika arrives home to collapse in tears and finds her world growing colder, riding the bus all alone and eventually cocooning herself in her apartment.

Thus when Kirishima starts to show an interest, Yoshika can’t quite figure out which “reality” she is really in. The idea that he might simply like her doesn’t compute so she assumes the worst and pushes him away in grand style, retreating to the entirely safe world of Ichi worship in which she, in a sense, has already been rejected so there is nothing left to fear. Coming up with a nefarious plan to meet Ichi by stealing the identity of a former classmate and organising a reunion, Yoshika’s fantasy is challenged by the man himself or more specifically his perception of events which differs slightly from her own owing to not placing herself at the centre. Though Yoshika had correctly surmised that Ichi was uncomfortable with the attention he received as the school’s “number one” and decided to ignore him as a token of her love, she remained unaware of the degree to which he suffered in her obsession with her own unrequited desires.

Wondering if she should just “go extinct” like the animals she loves so much who evolved in ways incompatible with life on Earth – literally too weird to live, Yoshika begins to lose her grip on the divisions between fantasy and reality, unable to accept the “real” attention and affection of those who would be her real world friends if she’d only let them while continuing to engage in the wilfully self destructive mourning of her illusions. Tremble All You Want (but do it anyway) seems to become Yoshika’s new mantra as she makes her first active decision to gravitate towards the land of the real despite her fear and the conviction that it will not accept her. Filled with whimsical charm but laced with a particular kind of melancholy darkness, Ohku’s tale of modern love in a disconnected world is a strangely cheerful affair even as our heroine prepares to swap her colourful fantasy for the potential comforts of the everyday.


Screened at the 20th Udine Far East Film Festival.

Original trailer (hit the subtitle button to turn on English subs)