Shape of Red (Red, Japan 2020)

Adapted from the 2014 novel Red by Shimamoto Rio (one of the most celebrated and prolific younger writers in Japan), this is a traditional Japanese female-centred melodrama (directed by Mishima Yukiko, the only female director out of my first five films on the tour). I rather liked it. As with all the other offerings I’ve watched on the Japan Foundation Film Tour, it is presented in ‘Scope (1:2.35). The structure is non-linear, beginning with a phone call from a public phone by the central character Toko in the midst of swirling snow. But soon we flash back to see her in her domestic setting. The flashbacks are not signalled so it takes some time to fully understand the narrative chronology.

Toko makes a call during the snowstorm

We soon realise that Toko is married to a wealthy young man and that they have a young daughter. Toko’s mother-in-law always seems to be around and her husband Shin is very conservative, seemingly doing only what his parents decree is appropriate and this includes Toko as a domesticated housewife/mother. By modern standards Toko has accepted a role that should have disappeared years ago.

. . . with Kurata

I don’t want to reveal too much plot but, by chance, Toko meets an old flame from ten years earlier. This is Kurata, an architect who reminds her of what might have been. Despite opposition at home, Toko decides to return to work and joins the architecture and design company where Kurata has a senior position. The head of the firm, Kodaka is an interesting character who acts as a kind of agent provocateur, taking an interest in Toko and proving perceptive about her relationship with Kurata. Toko and Kurata work together on a project in Niigata Prefecture, North of Tokyo and on the other side of Honshu, towards the Western coast. This means trips over the mountains and frequent heavy snow in winter, preventing Toko from getting home on time.

Kodaka provokes action by Toko

The ‘red’ of the title is a melodrama symbol for passion, danger and even directly for blood. The film’s dialogue and mise en scène also have a number of important symbolic references. It’s not giving much away to reveal that Toko and Kurata become lovers. He reveals how important the book ‘In Praise of Shadows’ by Tanazaki Junichiro is to him. This particular book is about Japanese and Western aesthetics and their possible influences on architecture. But Tanazaki, one of the biggest names in ‘modern’ 20th century Japanese literature, is also associated with novels about adultery, desire and eroticism. The couple also had a favourite album when they were together earlier, an LP by Jeff Buckley. Buckley’s interpretation of Leonard Cohen’s ‘Hallelujah’ is their favourite track. It’s a much misunderstood song about desire. The film’s title is underlined by a red cloth tied to a protruding cargo of wooden poles carried on a truck the couple are following in a snow storm – which eventually blows off and lands in the snow. Toko’s story – that of the repressed woman restricted to housework and childcare – is directly referenced when she is told, accusingly, “you are not in the Doll’s House”, citing the Ibsen play from 1879. This kind of European play was influential in ‘modernising’ Japanese ideas during the Meiji period. There is definitely an ‘excess’ of symbolism. I particularly like the architectural model house which Toko and Kurata create. Toko then feels that the main window should be larger so she can see out more.

. . . a bigger window for their ideal house

I’ve read all the reviews I could find on this film. Many fall into the opposing camps of an old-fashioned story that is now out of date vs. this cruel woman who would leave her beautiful little daughter and comfortable life for a selfish romance. There is an interesting feature in the Japan Times in which the director and co-scriptwriter (with Ikeda Chihiro) Mishima Yukiko explains that she thinks that many women in Japan are trapped like Toko in marriages in which they feel pressurised to conform and not think about what they really want. Mishima is an experienced filmmaker who clearly knows the power of traditional melodrama and feels that she knows ‘what women really want’. The Japan Times review by veteran critic Mark Schilling, however, suggests that there is already a “thriving subgenre of Japanese films about women who leave their ruts and find their grooves” – and Red looks by comparison like a “frustratingly retro drama”. Schilling suggests that Toko is too weak a character – a charge also made by Toko’s mother. I can’t claim any real knowledge of contemporary Japanese society but I would expect that Toko’s ‘entrapment’ is an issue in upper-class conservative households but not so prevalent for young educated women outside that group. Overall though I’m with the director. I did notice that the taboo of divorce and single parenthood features in several ways in this film, including the scene in which Toko is late picking up her daughter Midori from school with shaming consequences. I liked that Toko later reminds her husband that Midori has a father as well as a mother.

Shin, the conservative husband

Two other notable points about the film are the references to food, including Toko’s love of ‘simmered taro’, a form of yam-like root vegetable in broth and a typical food of Niigata, ‘noppe stew’. Early in the film there is a clash of dishes from Toko and her mother-in-law to be served to Shin. Like Miyamoto earlier in the tour, there are a couple of contrasting scenes of sexual activity in the film, carefully shot and edited but still deemed worth mentioning in the Japan Times review as relatively new in Japanese mainstream cinema. The performances from Kaho as Toko, Tsumabuki Satoshi as Kiruta and Emoto Tasuku as Kokada are excellent. Mamiya Shotaro as Shin is very well cast – I could see this actor playing a week young Emperor or Shogun, he exudes a certain kind of privilege. I’d like to see this film on a cinema screen but I fear that it would be difficult to put into UK distribution. Contemporary Japanese melodramas seem to appeal only to a minority of cinephiles here and that’s a shame.

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