This is a romantic comedy, but one unlike the Hollywood model. Perhaps it has more in common with something like My Sassy Girl (South Korea 2001) and other East Asian hits? The subtitles suggest that ‘Ms Eto’ (first name Yoshika) is an accounts clerk in a Tokyo office. From what I could see she is actually what would once have been called a ‘computer’- usually a female clerk who tallies bills, receipts etc. It’s not a great job, but you need to be quick and accurate. She’s in her mid twenties and, shock, horror, she’s still a virgin thinking about the ‘prince’ she idolised in high school who she calls ‘No. 1’ (his shortened name is Ichi, which could mean ‘1’). One day she finds herself invited to an after-work drinks party where she is propositioned by a fellow worker who she dubs ‘No. 2’. She decides it is time to act. She must find ‘1’ so she can compare the two possible suitors, otherwise she is lost.
Each day Yoshika travels to work along the same route and meets the same characters – her next door neighbour who plays an ocarina, the railway employee at the metro station, a waitress in a coffee shop who wears what appears to be a cosplay outfit, an office cleaner who knits on the bus, an older man fishing and a younger man at the pharmacy/soda shop. Later we will realise that she doesn’t really know these people, she has turned them into her fantasy friends because she is so lonely. Back in her tiny apartment she whiles away the time fascinated by extinct animals.
The narrative provides us with flashbacks to our hero’s schooldays and we see ‘the prince’ how he was then and we’ll be able to compare his current characterisation as Yoshika engineers a situation in which he feels forced to appear. Meanwhile ‘No. 2’ strives manfully to impress. He’s a bit of a klutz but generally well-meaning. But what has Yoshika’s close friend at work told him? Young women in romantic comedies are supposed to have one close friend but Yoshika’s friend seems more like an office acquaintance. The film is adapted from a novel by Wataya Risa and the film is directed by Ohku Akiko, one of the women directing ‘popular’ films in Japan who hasn’t received the same amount of exposure as a festival favourite like Naomi Kawase.
This film’s biggest asset is Matsuoka Mayu as Yoshika. Ms Matsuoka has had exposure internationally for the last year as one of the members of the unusual family group in Kore-eda Hirokazu’s Shoplifters. I was very impressed with her performance in that film but it was a ‘supporting role’ and in this 2017 film she is the protagonist and at the centre of every scene. Still only 22 when she played Yoshika she manages to be a convincing 14 year-old in the flashbacks and both an attractive woman and a flummoxed office drone in her pursuit of a suitor (or perhaps just a boyfriend?).
In her Tokyo Film Festival review of the film, Deborah Young of The Hollywood Reporter repeats several international film industry truisms. After praising Matsuoka’s performance and suggesting that this helped get the film selected for the festival, she continues:
Aimed at Japanese females under 30, chick lit on screen generally occasions smiles, yawns and rolling eyes. In this upscale example, experienced genre veteran Akiko Ohku (Tokyo Serendipity, Tokyo Nameless Girl’s Story, Fantastic Girls) directs a comedy about a kooky young lady who can’t decide between a fantasy guy and a real, imperfect boyfriend. Well-made and amusing if overlong at two hours, it is an Asian flavor that should work well at home but would have a hard time getting a foothold beyond.
The truisms are that men and everyone over 30 will be bored and rolling eyes – and that comedies like this don’t travel. Ms Young is a well-regarded film journalist and she may be correct about how the film won’t appeal outside Japan. But I enjoyed learning something more about Japanese twenty-somethings and the film didn’t feel too long (actually it’s 117 minutes), partly because of sharp editing. There was a good audience for the film at the Showroom and the two young women on my row seemed to have a very good time with it. There were notes with the screening written by Jasper Short, the well-known scholar, critic and enthusiast for Japanese film. Jasper tells us that the film won the Audience Award at the Tokyo Film Festival and that this got it an ‘in’ to other specialist Asian film festivals in Europe and North America, so perhaps there is hope yet for the UK. As Jasper concludes: “We are ultimately left with a universally touching tale of a young woman inwardly struggling to overcome loneliness, a lowly self-image and the reality behind her dreams.” But as he also suggests: “. . . it goes about its business with such effervescence and fresh-faced honesty that one can’t help but succumb to its charms”.
The Japan Foundation tours a group of films each year in the UK. This year there are 18 films with some showings in each of 20 venues. Each venue (click on the image above to see your nearest venues) selects a handful of films from the 18 and since most of the venues are far apart and only show the title once it’s virtually impossible to see all the films. Instead it’s pot-luck which titles are available locally. Still, that’s part of the fun and you often get to see something you might not have chose otherwise- and enjoy it. I hope to get to at least two venues this year after failing to make any last year and feeling that I missed out.
This year the loose theme is ‘People Still Call It Love: Passion, Affection and Destruction in Japanese Cinema’. Most of the films are productions from the last few years, several from 2018. Many are UK premieres. I don’t think any of them have been commercially distributed in the UK. The films include an anime and an archive print, this year it is Where Chimneys Are Seen from 1953. Going solely by title, I’m tempted by Her Love Boils Bathwater.
All films are subtitled. There is a programme brochure and notes for each film. You won’t normally get the chance to see films like this, so give it a go!
Here’s the trailer for Three Stories of Love, showing in nine venues.
The Japanese film industry has been criticised in recent years for not supporting Japanese films overseas and for poor presentation of films to festivals and sales agents. There seems to be some substance to this but as far as archive prints are concerned there are usually prints available from various cultural agencies and it was good to see The Elegant Life of Mr Everyman as part of the Japanese Foundation Tour. The screening was at HOME in Manchester and was introduced by Jonathon Bunt from the University of Manchester. He promised us a good time with the film and some good laughs. He also pointed out that the director Okamoto Kihachi was part of the generation of filmmakers who experienced war service as young men and that this was perhaps an important influence on the film, as well as Okamoto’s approach to satirising the growing materialism of Japan in the early 1960s. The film did indeed provide what was promised. I admit that at this stage I knew nothing about Okamoto and it wasn’t until I’d done some research that I realised I actually owned DVDs of a couple of the director’s films.
Okamoto Kihachi is profiled on the Midnight Eye website. Born in 1924 he was conscripted and sent to fight in 1943 aged 19 and experienced the deaths of many of his fellow conscripts (he told an interviewer that young men born in 1924 suffered the highest rate of deaths from the fighting). His battlefield experiences surely informed his approach to action films, including several well-known chanbara or ‘samurai’ films with Mifune Toshiro (e.g. Samurai Assassin in 1964 and Sword of Doom in 1965) which were thought to have changed aspects of the genre, moving away from themes of ‘honour and heroism’ to focus on ‘death and misery’ (as Tom Mes puts it on Midnight Eye). The Elegant Life of Mr Everyman belongs to the part of Okamoto’s output that focused on experimental genre pieces – but it clearly has autobiographical touches too.
The film is an adaptation of a novel by Yamaguchi Hitomi (which may also be autobiographical). It tells the story of Eburi – an office-worker or ‘salaryman’ in an advertising company. ‘Eburi’ is an Anglo-Japanese pun which rhymes the Japanese name with the English concept of the ‘everyman’, making the character a good fit for a satirical narrative. (I’m indebted to the notes written by Tony Rayns for several insights like this.) Eburi’s main vice is to get (very) drunk one night a week in various bars. On one occasion he somehow allows himself to be persuaded by a young couple who are editors to write a piece for a magazine. He feels compelled to write the piece despite not having a subject. Finally, in desperation, he writes autobiographically about his experiences of marriage and being a father while coping with his own irresponsible father – an unscrupulous businessman who borrows money, spends it and then bankrupts himself on a regular basis, expecting Eburi to bail him out each time. Eburi is amazed when the magazine piece is successful and he is persuaded to write a second. This narrative structure allows Okamoto to present the events of Eburi’s life and then, when Eburi wins a literary prize, to regale his younger colleagues with more stories about his literary life. Here Okamoto deploys the full range of cinematic devices with stop motion animation and a form of drawn animation popular in Japanese advertising at the time (but more Western than the early styles of anime) as well as montage sequences, freeze frames, jump cuts and extended flashbacks to Eburi’s earlier experiences. (See the trailer below.)
There were several younger students of Japanese in the audience and I don’t know how many of the jokes and references they got. Okamoto was contracted to Toho and one of the directors for whom he worked in his early career was one of the most celebrated directors of the period, Naruse Mikio. So at one point he refers to a Naruse classic Late Chrysanthemums (1954) and then later to Steve McQueen and Yukio Mishima as celebrities. McQueen was only then in the early part of his career – but perhaps famous in Japan because of The Magnificent Seven? At one point Eburi’s 12 year-old son is watching a TV Western and Okamoto was a big Westerns fan himself. Mishima (1925-70) was a celebrated and controversial Japanese writer and provocateur. The script by Ide Toshiro is very well thought out. Eburi is supposed to have been born in 1926, the first year of the Showa era. This means that he is just old enough to have been conscripted in the final months of the war and he is shown as an incompetent infantryman in training in one of the flashbacks. In other scenes we see him trying to come to terms with the Americanisation of much of Japanese life during the Occupation and its aftermath and, with the advent of economic growth, the beginnings of the consumer society. At 36 it is already clear that he belongs to a different generation than his younger office colleagues. Several reviews describe Eburi as ‘middle-aged’ at 36 – which is probably accurate for an early 1960s attitude!
What makes this film particularly interesting for me is that it comes from the period when the Japanese New Wave was beginning to have an impact on the Japanese studios. Okamoto seems to have a singular take on what a film might be. The film also lines up alongside similarly satirical/absurdist films in other New Waves. One UK review I read suggested that Eburi is a figure like Tony Hancock. I can partly see that but my first thought was the satire shows on UK TV in the early 1960s and the writers that came from them such as Marty Feldman or other writers such as Charles Wood (The Knack 1966, How I Won the War 1967). Eburi’s story might be culturally Japanese but it definitely has universal features widely applicable in other film cultures of the 1960s. I’m very pleased to have seen it. I wish now I could find the Noh musical Oh, Bomb which Okamoto made in 1964 – or a subtitled version of his Western East Meets West (1995).
Japanese trailer (no subs):