Director – Takahiro Horie – 2021 – Japan – 119m
Believing her manga artist husband is having an affair with their publisher, a manga artist wifedraws a new manga in which she embarks on an affair with her driving instructor – plays UK cinemas in the Japan Foundation Touring Film Programme 2023 between Friday, 3rd February and Friday, 31st March
When another story assignment for their editor Chika (Nao aka Nao Honda) comes to an end for wife and husband manga artists Sawako (Haru Kuroki) and Toshio Hayakawa (Tasuku Emoto), Sawako lets Toshio drive Chika to the station, listening to them talk after shutting the door behind them because she’s convinced (correctly) that the pair are having an affair. Shortly afterwards, she gets a phone call telling her that her mother (Jun Fubuki) is ill, and the urban couple drive to her home in the countryside to be there for her as she recuperates. She is walking around on a single crutch but seems in good shape.
That is, however, more than can be said for this married couple’s relationship. To keep up appearances, they share a bedroom at her mother’s place, something they haven’t done at home for years. The plan is for both of them to work while they are there because, as Toshio points out, you can draw manga anywhere. He doesn’t do much himself and generally mopes around the house. Meanwhile, she not only starts work on a new manga but also takes up driving lessons.
At first, she seems to be paralysed by a fear of driving. But when her driving instructor is replaced by young, attentive and caring Ayumi Shintani (Daichi Kaneko), she starts to slowly gain self-confidence and improve. She clearly enjoys the experience, and is soon spending entire days learning. Coming back to her mother’s at night, she draws her new manga. Toshio is stunned to discover that it seems to mirror life pretty accurately, including the episode of him and Chika behind the door at the story’s beginning.
Could it be that she’s onto him and his mistress? In her seemingly autobiographical manga story, she not only takes driving lessons but herself embarks on an affair with her driving instructor. Unsure whether this is merely his wife telling a fictional story or if there’s actually some truth in it, Toshio starts going down to the driving school to spy on her, even following her and her instructor’s car around in his own…
This highly original tale is very cleverly put together so that (until all is finally revealed towards the end) the driving instructor adultery episodes are introduced as pages in the manga-in-progress episodes which move into live action, creating one embrace in fully realised and motional drawn animation. Thus, although we watch the adultery proceed in live action, it’s impossible to say (until it’s clarified) whether this is a fantasy created on paper by the wife or an actual, documentary-style representation of actual events. Either way, after she has drawn the pages, they are then left around to be seen by and torment her unfaithful husband.
Whether fact or fiction, the affair as read by Toshio and experienced from his point of view is a beautifully and completely involving piece of storytelling, heightening the guilt stricken and confused husband’s dilemma.
As subtly played by Emoto to hilarious, comic effect, the adulterous Toshio is a fairly hapless male, completely out of his depth, while the wronged Sawako knows exactly what she’s doing. Although complicit with him in adultery, publisher Chika seems far more motivated by publishing strong stories then in any detrimental effect their publication may have on the hapless Toshio.
Just as there are Western movies about comic artists such as Funny Pages (Owen Kline, 2022), so there are Japanese movies about manga artists such as 37 Seconds (Hikari, 2019). Sensei, Would You Sit Beside Me? is a little bit different in that it deals with two artists – a married couple – and the subject of adultery. While much of the story seems lightweight, that appearance belies a darker sensibility beneath the surface. This is Japan, after all, and everyone treats everyone else with great deference. But underneath all that, this is a vision of men as pathetic creatures while women, even if they are closeted and subtle about it, know exactly what’s going on and what to do to get their own back.
Perhaps it could have worked well if the characters had been portrayed as belonging to another profession, but as it stands, the film offers some considerable insight into both the commercial workings of Japan’s manga-publishing industry and the everyday working practice of professional manga artists. Which is a most welcome bonus.
Sensei, Would You Sit Beside Me? plays UK cinemas in the Japan Foundation Touring Film Programme 2023 between Friday, 3rd February and Friday, 31st March. Read my introduction to this year’s programme.