Director – Yukiko Mishima – 2020 – Japan – Cert. N/C 15+ – 122m
A woman trapped in a stultifying marriage experiences freedom and laughter in both returning to work and pursuing an extramarital relationship – played online in the Japan Foundation Touring Film Programme 2021 in the UK
Married to Shin (Shotaro Mamiya) with a six-year-old girl Midori, Toko (Kaho – Our Little Sister, Hirokazu Kore-eda, 2015) is a stay-at-home mum. Shin works with a trading company and judging by the size of the house is not lacking financially. Shin’s mother is a constant fixture in their home and the first time we see Shin come in from work of an evening, he rejects the meal his wife has prepared because he’s “not hungry” only to readily accept a favourite dish his mother has prepared.
That doesn’t bode well for the marriage. In bed she dutifully performs a blow job on him which satisfies him but not her. As she wipes away the results with a tissue, you feel that she’s not so much a wife, more a sort of sexual skivvy.
As his wife, Toko accompanies Shin to various work social events where she similarly appears to be little more than an appendage. After insisting she attend one such event, he promptly abandons her so he can talk with a book author leaving her to her own devices. By chance, wandering around the hotel at a loose end, she sees a former lover Kurata (Satoshi Tsumabuki – Villain, Lee Sang-il, 2010; The Fast And The Furious: Tokyo Drift, Justin Lin, 2006) and, after momentarily losing sight of him as she passes through a room of ladies plying her with afternoon tea, they’re suddenly all over each other. Clearly she feels alive here in a way that she doesn’t with her husband.
Shocked that Toko gave up work and career for marriage – she and Kurata were architecture students together ten years ago -– he informs her of a vacancy at his current architectural practice. She applies, has an interview, gets the job. She does well too, fitting in with the team and coming up with ideas that go against the grain but are just what’s needed.
Her new boss Kodaka (Tasuku Emoto – Beautiful New Bay Area Project, Kiyoshi Kurosawa, 2013; Air Doll, Hirakazu Kore-eda, 2009) who has something of a reputation as a lothario coaxes her onto a boat with him after an office do, takes her baseball batting against a bowling machine and after some frank sexual questioning, playfully pursues her through a shopping mall. Much as on meeting Kurata again, she feels a sense of joy that’s mostly lacking in her everyday existence.
Before long, she’s heading off to a hotel room with not Kodata but Kurata for an intense physical encounter that’s everything that her cold sexual exchanges with her husband aren’t.
The pressures of working life as a mother take their toll, partly because Shin’s mother promises to help out but then doesn’t keep her end of the bargain. Having initially encouraged his wife to work, Shin now does a U-turn and tells her it’s time to quit and become a full-time wife and mother again. But she’s had a taste of freedom and isn’t about to give up so easily.
There’s an awful lot of driving in poor, Wintry conditions which provides a visually arresting if philosophically bleak background to the proceedings. This is exploited by a pre-credits opening sequence involving Toko in a call box in the middle of nowhere and a red handkerchief blowing in the wind and landing on the snowy ground, a sequence unexpectedly reworked later in the narrative. There’s also a fairly perfunctory sub-plot about Kurata dying of cancer.
Leading lady Kaho delivers a truly strange performance, miserable and sour faced in her marriage and, indeed, much of the rest of the time including many of her scenes with Tsumabuki’s Kurata but occasionally switching into a truly joyous lightness of spirit which is genuinely affecting when it occurs. Her mostly miserable demeanour seems to infuse far more of the film than you might expect.
This is not to say she gives a bad performance, but the way she plays much of the film IS a curious choice. There are a small number of extremely passionate scenes outside of which the film deals with oppressive marriage or romantic longing, but sometimes her character’s misery carries through into places where you’d think she’d express joy. And yet, watching her on the screen here proves strangely compelling.