Tremble All You Want (2017) — July 19, 2018
Tremble All You Want features yet another unrequited school crush, this one seen in flashback as 24 year old Yoshika is still obsessed with a boy she had a couple of fleeting interactions with a decade before. Now working as an accountant, a young man has shown interest in her. She must choose between these two men, the fantasy of her adolescent crush and the awkward reality of a decent, if somewhat bumbling, peer. Director Ohku Akiko locks us firmly in Yoshika’s magical perspective, where she has a rich life as the vibrant center of a wide community of friends and allies, the kind of girl who sings and dances her way through life, when in fact she is painfully shy, awkward and quiet. Matsuoka Mayu is terrific as Yoshika, easily shifting between mousy nobody and sparkling rom-com star, equally at home pounding away at a ten-key, discoursing on the wonders of extinct animals and being barely able to speak while she hides her longing expressions through glasses and an unruly mop of hair. Bright and energetic where Amiko is moody and somber, Tremble is nonetheless a remarkably similar film (Yoshika is in many ways simply a grown-up version of Amiko). Coupled with the paralyzing shyness and reality-transforming creativity of Night is Short’s hero and heroine, one wonders if these films aren’t tapping into something new in the romantic comedy genre, a reflection of the neurotic split between online (and therefore created) personae and awkward real life.
Reviewed as part of my coverage of Japan Cuts 2018. ↩︎
Hold Me Back (2020) — August 2, 2021
Ohku Akiko’s Hold Me Back is, like her 2017 film Tremble All You Want, a portrait of a lonely young woman whose inner life manifests itself on-screen in fantastical sequences more reminiscent of anime than traditional romantic comedy. Tremble was a kind of musical, about a woman trying to choose between a past crush and a new man in her life. Hold Me Back is significantly darker, its hero not always safely navigating the borderline between whimsicality and serious mental illness.
Mitsuko is an office worker in her early thirties who lives alone and works in an office. She carries on long conversations with an entity she calls “A”, which might be her internal monologue, her conscience, an alternate personality, or a kind of guardian angel. She has a work friend and a crush on a younger man she sees occasionally from work. They live in the same neighborhood and sometimes she cooks him meals which he, being just as socially awkward as her, takes home to eat alone. Notably, Mitsuko does not appear to be painfully shy or incompetent when dealing with other people. Rather, she’s just an ordinary young woman, implying that her loneliness, and the panic and depression it inspires, is not anything strange: everyone, at least at times, feels the same way. It’s just that because she’s in a movie, Mitsuko’s emotions manifest themselves in visually imaginative ways.
As such, Ohku’s films have more in common with slice of life anime, say the films and TV series by Kyoto Animation (K-On!, Sound! Euphonium, Nichijou) than they do with Hollywood romantic comedy, even in its quirkier forms, the films of Michel Gondry say, or the manic pixie canon. Ohku’s fantasies are not merely funny, or weird, or beautiful for their own sake (though they are all of those things), but are inextricably tied to the psychological condition of her heroines, women about whose sanity we’re never entirely sure. How much of Mitsuko’s life is hallucination is impossible to tell. We can be pretty sure that a musical sequence on an airplane set to Otaki Eiichi’s 1981 city pop classic “Kimiwa Ten-en Shoku” (a song also used in Sound! Euphonium) is not real, but rather a manifestation the power of music to calm Mitsuko’s nerves as she confronts her fear of flying. But how much of her interactions with her would-be boyfriend are fact or fantasy? Is the young man her work friend has a crush on really as ridiculous as he seems, or is our perception colored by Mitsuko’s bias against him? To this end, Ohku is aided immensely by a strong performance by Non (Nōnen Rena), a model and singer who is probably best known abroad for being the lead voice in the 2016 anime In this Corner of the World and who also stars in Iwai Shunji’s upcoming The 12 Day Tale of the Monster that Died in 8. Non plays all aspects of Mitsuko’s personality straight, bringing a hard edge to the cuteness, and tempering the desperation with reserves of inner strength.
Ohku’s films aren’t really romantic comedies. She’s less interested in relationships, or the idea of love, than she is in the ways we deal with its absence, in the ways we’re all alone in our own heads and the seeming impossibility of therefore connecting with another person. Mitsuko in Hold Me Back seems to break through and find such a connection. The film is after all, ultimately a comedy. But what lingers most after the music fades is the feeling of her panic, her failures, and her abject loneliness.