Ito (いとみち, Satoko Yokohama, 2021)

“Ye can’t hear my silence!” the timid young heroine of Satoko Yokohama’s Ito (いとみち, Itomichi), an adaptation of the Osamu Koshigaya novel, finally fires back, reminding us that silence too is means of communication. The film’s Japanese title, Itomichi, refers to the groove in shamisen player’s nail caused by the friction of the strings, but also perhaps to the path of the heroine of the same name as she makes her way towards self actualisation, figuring out the various ways there are of connecting with people as she begins to step into herself while coming to terms with the past. 

As we first meet Ito (Ren Komai) she’s trapped in a boring history lesson about local famines, reminded by the teacher to raise her voice while reading from the textbook but reluctant to do so firstly because she has an unusually strong local accent and often speaks in dialect and secondly because she is intensely shy. When she’s finished, the teacher even jokes that listening to her read is a little like classical music though it doesn’t seem much like a compliment. Even so, it’s particularly apt as Ito, like her late mother, has a talent for playing the Tsugaru shamisen and has even won numerous competitions yet she’s barely touched her instrument recently, perhaps developing a slight complex about the bumpkinishness of her intensely local way of life, especially as her father Koichi (Etsushi Toyokawa) is a university professor researching the traditional culture of the local area. 

Pointing out that talking is Ito’s weak spot, Koichi reminds her that she can communicate with others through her music even if he later admonishes her to use her words if she has something to say. Her refusal to pick up her shamisen is then a kind of withdrawal if of a particularly teenage kind. Hoping to get over her shyness, she finds herself quite accidentally applying for a part-time job at a maid cafe in the city, an incongruity in itself but one that helps her begin to open up to others. Then again, a maid cafe might not be the best environment selling as it does an outdated conception of sexual politics. Koichi later makes this argument pointing out that a maid cafe is not so different from a hostess bar while another maid, Tomomi (Mayuu Yokota), takes issue with the false chivalry of some of the middle-aged men who frequent the establishment who set up a club to “protect” Ito after she is inappropriately touched by a belligerent customer. To Tomomi the very idea that women need “protection” from men against men is inherently sexist and wrongheaded while the fact that they all rally round to protect the shy and vulnerable Ito also speaks volumes about their ideals of womanhood explaining why it is they’re in a maid cafe where the waitresses call their customers “master” and indulge their every whim in the first place. Even so, Ito’s colleagues are also quick to reassure her that she is in no way at fault, the customer’s behaviour was unacceptable and against the spirit of their establishment.

Yet as the manager points out “moe moe” is also a “means of communication” not perhaps intended to be taken literally. Ito does not exactly discover how to use her words, but through interacting with her colleagues at the cafe begins to come into an acceptance of herself no longer seeing her accent and dialect as uncool or old fashioned giving herself space to breathe as she makes new friends guided by her cafe mentor Sachiko (Mei Kurokawa) and finally getting up the courage to speak to another lonely young woman whom she’d been on awkward nodding terms with seeing as they catch the same train home from school. As Ito’s grandmother (Yoko Nishikawa) reveals, she learned how to play the shamisen with her eyes and ears proving that communication comes in many forms. Ito’s name which she had previously found old-fashioned and embarrassing appropriately enough means threads or here strings of a shamisen which become in their own ways channels to connect with other people which as the slightly dubious owner of the cafe (Daimaou Kosaka) points out is the most important thing of all. 

As Ito rehearses her maid routine with a video of her mentor, grandma outlines her thoughts about shamisen on camera for Koichi’s eager students, handing her knowledge down for the next generation. Literally finding her groove again, carving a niche in her fingernail, Ito rediscovers her love for music while gaining the confidence to stand on stage and be herself encouraged by all her friends and family. A beautifully pitched coming-of-age tale celebrating the local culture of Yokohama’s hometown Aomori, from which leading actress Ren Komai also hails, Ito is a warm and loving tribute not only to Tsugaru shamisen but to friendship and community brokered by a wealth of communication and a willingness to listen even to silence. 


Ito screened as part of the 2021 Osaka Asian Film Festival.

Images: (C)2021『いとみち』製作委員会

The Actor (俳優  亀岡拓次, Satoko Yokohama, 2016)

“There are no small parts, only small actors” according to the mantra of the bit part player, but perhaps deep down everyone wants to play the lead. Most jobbing actors will tell you that they’re happy to be working and if you work as much the dejected hero of Satoko Yokohama’s The Actor (俳優  亀岡拓次, Haiyu Kameoka Takuji), you can make a pretty decent living with a little more job security than a big name star whose career will inevitably hit the odd dry spell. Yet, who doesn’t want to at least feel that they’re the lead in their own life story? Spending all your time being other people can make you lose sight of who you really are and live your life with a sense of cinematic romanticism forever at odds with accepted reality. 

Takuji Kameoka (Ken Yasuda) is a classic background actor, turning up in small roles in TV dramas, often playing the villain of the week or appearing as a prominent extra. Meanwhile, his offscreen life seems to be lived in a booze-soaked haze, hanging out in his favourite bar surrounded by similarly dejected middle-aged men or occasionally meeting up with colleagues. Even his agent expects him to be sozzled when she rings to confirm new jobs though to be fair she doesn’t seem too bothered about it. 

Kameoka has perhaps made his peace with the kind of actor he is, but there’s also an inbuilt anxiety in waiting for people to ask what it is he does, knowing that it sounds glamorous and exciting when, to him at least, it’s anything but. Chatting with a pretty young woman, Azumi (Kumiko Aso), working behind a bar in a small town where he’s filming, Kameoka spins her a yarn about being a bowling ball salesman rather than be forced into a conversation about the life of a jobbing actor which might perhaps depress him more. Alone in the bar, the pair of them strike up a rapport over shared sake, but Kameoka forgets that in essence she’s just the same as him – acting, performing her role as the cheerful hostess, keeping him happy to sell more drinks. Later, she tells him that she’s switching roles, “recasting” herself as a good wife and mother, pointing again towards the unavoidable performative quality of conforming to socially defined labels such as “wife”, “mother”, “landlady”, “actor” or “man”. 

Everyone is, to some degree, acting, forced to perform a role in which they may privately feel miscast but are unable to reject. Kameoka is losing sight of who he is and so his life begins to feel increasingly like a movie, obeying narrative logic rather than that of “reality” while he often drifts off into flights of fancy in which he gets to play not the lead but a slightly bigger supporting part, recasts himself as the star of a favourite film, or finds himself momentarily in a film noir. Real or imagined, his directors have nothing but praise for him to the degree that it somehow feels ironic. He’s brought in to show the rookie leads how it’s done, an accidental master at dropping dead on camera, but as the landlady at his local says of another actor on TV, he just doesn’t have that leading man sparkle. Of course, not having that kind of presence is perfect for being a background player but a great shame when he has the talent to succeed, just without the burden of “star quality”. 

Then again, his talent is uncertain. Despite telling his agent that he doesn’t do stage, he agrees to work with a famous actress/director on an avant-garde theatre piece. Though she’s much harder on the young female star, Matsumura (Yoshiko Mita) rarely compliments his acting and eventually advises him that he’s unsuited to stage work because he has “film timing”. Privately, he might agree, but a job’s a job. Ironically enough, the performance that Matsumura failed to bring out in him is vividly brought to life during a very weird audition for a Spanish director who happens to be one of Kameoka’s favourites. He inhabits the role so strongly as to completely become it to the extent that its world rises all around him, but all too soon the audition is over with a simple “that’s great, thank you – we’ll be in touch”. Kameoka even suffers the indignity of crawling under the frozen shutters to exit the building while the next hopeful, a top TV actor he worked with on a previous job, makes his way inside. 

The woman in Kameoka’s audition fantasy is clearly Azumi, something that becomes clearer to him still during another flight of fancy that recasts him as a romantic hero making the grand gesture of a rain soaked dash, motorcycle filmed against rear projection, as he prepares for the inevitable “happy ending”. Reality, however, triumphs once again. Lovelorn, Kameoka declares himself lonely and indeed is always alone, not one of the “main cast” just a “bit player” hanging round until his scene and then moving on to the next project. He waves at women who weren’t waving at him, sympathises with a failed singer turned bar hostess, and celebrates the unexpected marriage of a friend but in a strange sense perhaps misses “himself”, gradually eclipsed by all the roles he plays onscreen and off. “Who are you?”, the Spanish director’s interpreter asks. “Takuji Kameoka, Japanese Actor”, is as good an answer as any. 


Screened as part of the Japan Foundation Touring Film Programme 2020.

Original trailer (English subtitles)

Bare Essence of Life (ウルトラミラクルラブストーリー , Satoko Yokohama, 2009)

©Little More Co.

bare essence of life posterThere might be a pun involved in the title of Bare Essence of Life – another example of a Japanese film with a katakana English title, Ultra Miracle Love Story (ウルトラミラクルラブストーリー), given a completely different English language title for overseas distribution, but that would be telling. Following her feature debut German + Rain, Satoko Yokohama once again tells a tale of small town misfits only this time of an Aomori farm boy whose brain is wired a little differently to everyone else’s – “not broken, just different”. Though everyone in the village knows Yojin (Kenichi Matsuyama) and is familiar with his sometimes unusual behaviour, a young visitor taking a temporary job in a quaint rural backwater may need a little more time to acclimatise.

Yojin is, as he says, a little different from the others. Neatly signalling a problem with executive functioning, he lives his life to the tune of several different alarm clocks with deliberately different sound cues to help him remember what he’s supposed to be doing. Grandma also helps with that too through use of a giant whiteboard which has Yojin’s daily itinerary on it so he can keep track of where he is and record his thoughts about the day. Yojin’s grandfather has passed away but has left him some valuable horticulture tips on a cassette tape which Yojin listens to diligently every day whilst tending to his cabbages, trying to work out a good way of keeping them safe from creepy crawlies seeing as grandma doesn’t really trust him with insecticide (later events will prove this to be wise).

Everything changes when brokenhearted school teacher Machiko (Kumiko Aso) arrives all the way from Tokyo as temporary cover for maternity leave at the local nursery. Oddly, seeing as there are so few young people around, the school seems pretty busy with youngsters but then again perhaps they’ve come from neighbouring villages which would explain why the parents are sometimes so late coming to pick their kids up. In any case, Machiko instantly captures Yojin’s heart and he becomes fixated on the idea of making her his one and only. Machiko, however, is battling her own romantic woes and is originally quite taken aback by Yojin’s odd combination of directness and innocence.

Yojin is, undoubtedly, a lot to take in, but the villagers are all very used to his ways and mostly just shrug his various antics off even when they entail inconveniences like office paperwork suddenly scattered to the wind, or getting pelted with vegetables after taking issue with Yojin’s sales patter. Grandma bears the brunt of his rudeness not to mention self-centred attitude and otherwise difficult behaviour but she also worries how he’s going to look after himself when she’s gone. Hence the vegetable patch – a literal testing ground. Machiko makes Yojin wish he were different, and a half-baked experiment in which he buries himself up to the neck in his cabbage patch (perhaps to better understand cabbages so that he can figure out how to grow them) and a neighbourhood boy sprinkles him with pesticide shows him a way he can make it happen.

So begins Yojin’s long, strange path towards “evolution” as he discovers that exposure to various chemicals helps him slow everything down so he can be a little more like everyone else. Moving into the centre ground makes his presence more palatable to Machiko, giving them time to bond during nighttime walks as Machiko outlines her curious theories on the forward motion of the human race. Machiko wonders if humanity’s need to control the unpredictable, smooth out rough edges and tame nature is limiting its ability to change and grow, yet even as she says so Yojin is attempting to temper his own wildness expressly for Machiko. Nevertheless, getting to know him Machiko comes to the conclusion that maybe what Yojin needs is to become more Yojin, rather than dousing himself in dangerous chemicals which seem to have provoked some kind of strange metamorphosis as yet unknown to medical science.

Chemicals aside, Yojin’s world takes a turn a definite turn for the surreal as he chats with headless ghosts and then temporarily joins the ranks of the undead himself. Yokohama has a point or two to make about the use of pesticides – a neighbourhood woman warns Machiko to head indoors when she first arrives because it’s crop spraying day, but then refuses to buy Yojin’s “organic” vegetables because she’s not convinced anything grown without chemical assistance could really be “safe” or “clean” enough for consumption. This need to control nature may eventually ruin it, and us too – much as Machiko’s hypothesis posited. Maybe Yojin is the most evolved us all, defiantly in touch with his essential nature and, perhaps, finally allowing his soul to find its true home if in the strangest of ways.


Screened as part of Archipelago: Exploring the Landscape of Contemporary Japanese Women Filmmakers.

Original trailer (English subtitles)