“Bad Poetry Tokyo is a splendid debut full-length feature […] poignantly underlining the destructive effects of abuse on subjectivity.”
What defines a Japanese movie? Is it a narrative made by a Japanese director? Set in Japan? A narrative where they speak Japanese. To be clear, The Japanese narrative does not exist. While there are specific cultural tendencies to be noted in Japanese cinema, each director present his own subjective reading of his culture in his movies. A Kore-eda narrative is vastly different from a Kiyoshi Kurosawa narrative.
Besides focusing on Japanese directors – this may be the strict definition of what constitutes a Japanese movie – it is also interesting to highlight how subjects not born within Japanese culture, not born within the specific culture that colours their subjectivity, use Japan as a setting to frame their narratives about human beings. In this light, we review Anshul Chauhan’s Bad Poetry Tokyo (General-note 1).
Fujita Jun (Shuna Iijima), a 30 year old hostess working at a shady club, aspires to become an actress in L.A.. With her hard work at the hostess club, work that is quite often sexual in nature, she tries to save enough money to move to America. After auditioning for a movie that would take her three months to Canada, she feels confident of receiving the part.
One night, after refusing her costumer any sexual services and wandering back to her apartment, she finds a friend of her lover Taka (Orson Mochizuki) searching her apartment. He runs off with something valuable, leaving Jun behind with a damaged face; an acting career is now out of the question. Jun decides to leave Tokyo and go back to her hometown in the countryside.
It is evident from Bad Poetry Tokyo‘s narrative – and cinematography (see below), that the narrative primarily aims to explore Jun’s subjectivity. By following her subjective narrative, the spectator is slowly introduced to the circle of abuse she is caught up in. This is evident in her work as hostess; the dynamic of the seedy club she works at revealing how women are stuck within an endless circle of exploitation. In a powerful way the narrative shows that within this work her subjectivity is besides the point, it is her body that counts, her body, in exchange for money, as a tool for masturbating manly ego’s. As a woman, she has a role to play, a role that endlessly strokes the ego of the male subject.
It is not surprising that Jun’s refusal in relation to her rich customer – a first burst of subjectivity, heralds the end of her career as hostess. The act of having her money be stolen has to be understood in the same vein. While money means freedom and a way to chase her dreams, the act of stealing is meant to keep her in this circle of exploitation and deprive her from the possibility to undertake the subjective choice of moving to L.A.. In short, both Jun’s first subjective burst as the robbery of her money, annuls the inclusive subjective place she had found (within a cycle of abuse) in Tokyo.
The lack of having an inclusive subjective place is also evident when she returns to her hometown. The disillusioned Jun, having lost her direction in life due to her shattered dream, finds herself, after being gone for five years without contacting anyone from her family, in a place akin to an outsider within her own family. The relation with her father is cold and even hostile – her abusive father being the reason why she left her hometown five years earlier. Through her interactions with her father, the spectator is introduced to an earlier abusive cycle Jun was caught up in. In other words, the narrative paints Jun’s subjective trajectory as always being stuck within a circle of abuse, by her father in the past, by Taka, and by the male costumers of the seedy hostess club. Jun seems to be caught within an impossibility to find a subjective place for herself not marked by abuse (Narra-note 1).
In the framing of Jun’s subjective trajectory, Bad Poetry Tokyo emphasizes her desperate try to escape the circle of abuse and to carve a different place, a place not marked by abuse, for her subject. The refusal to offer sexual services to her costumer is nothing other than a ‘violent’ subjective burst, introducing a radical separation from the image of hostess. In this act, she refuses her subjective position within the cycle of exploitation. The act of cutting her hair has to be seen as Jun’s second subjective act. And while this act is less sudden, it is even more violent in nature, as it marks a definite shift from a passive to an active position, a shift from undergoing the acts of others to performing acts to escape the circle of abuse that marked her subjectivity (Narra-note 1 [spoiler]).
The narrative space of Bad Poetry Tokyo is framed with a mix of fixed shots and moving shots and is, in general, focused on bringing Jun’s subjectivity to the fore – note the remarkable choice to frame the narrative in a square size. If we look closer to the way movement is framed in the narrative, we can see that more fluid shot movement, subtly shifting horizontal or vertical, tend to highlight Jun’s movement by contrast, while shaky moving shots are inclined to underline, by parallel, the movement of Jun as such (Cine-note 1, Cine-note 2). With respect to the fixed shots, the more rougher shaky shots, used primarily in the framing of interactions, tend to evoke some form of tension or subjective unrest. In this way, by utilizing the frame as such, Anshul Chauhan is able to subtly empower the subjectivity of Jun (Cine-note 3).
And while the cinematography as such is instrumental in framing subjectivity, a lot of the power of the narrative comes from the exquisite sound-design (Sound-note 1). By being attentive to the spatial features of the narrative space, Anshul Chauhan is able to underline the presence of the subject – in general this is Jun – within the narrative space in a sensible way. As her presence resounds in the narrative space, her speech emphasized, the full range of Jun’s emotional states is able to powerfully touch the spectator. And the unobtrusive (and often subtle) music that tends to accompany the more emotional scenes, besides underlining the tension, successfully add more depth to Jun’s emotional state (Music-note 1).
What is remarkable in this narrative, is that Chauhan, by using natural speech and by keeping his characters partially opaque for the spectator, implies an existence for the characters beyond the narrative frame. Be it Taka, Yuki, her father, or Jun herself, they remain at some level incomprehensible to the spectator (and to themselves) – here one can situate their subjectivity. And while every actor/actress gives a fine performance – adding to the believability of the narrative space, it is Shuna Iijima’s performance as Jun that is most impressive. In a narrative that asks so much of her, she brings every emotion, every expression, and every act, in such a believable, captivating and natural way to the fore.
Bad Poetry Tokyo is a splendid debut full-length feature. It is evident from the cinematography, that Anshul Chauhan is a director with a clear vision, able – and this is even more important – to exploit the versatility of cinematography to frame subjectivity in an engaging way. As the narrative follows the subjective trajectory of Jun, it slowly reveals, in a rather detached way, that the violent attempt to break the cycle of abuse and find a subjective place outside that cycle, sometimes leads to a place outside society, outside the symbolic. In this way, Bad Poetry Tokyo poignantly underlines the destructive effects of abuse on subjectivity as such.
General-note 1: For those who watch a lot of Japanese movies, it will be clear that Anshul Chauhan’s narrative is devoid of many tendencies present in Japanese cinema, e.g. the importance of food.
Cine-note 1: As with all tendencies, there are exceptions. Fluid movement is sometimes used to shift from one character to another. In one instance, this separates the speaker’s speech from the image, as the shift shifts its focus on the listener.
In other instances, movement unrelated to Jun is framed with moving shots as well. This is evident when the narrative frames the two concurrent spaces of the bar where Jun works as hostess and her apartment. And sometimes even subtle movement is used to underline characters important to Jun, e.g. Nana, her friend at the club, and her father, or characters that will become important, e.g. her ex-boyfriend, Yuki.
Cine-Note 2: Sometimes, the narrative shifts its focus to Taka, framing his subjectivity in much the same way as it frames Jun’s subjectivity. These shifts show what happens before and after Jun leaves Tokyo from Taka’s perspective and further explores the consequences of Jun’s subjective burst and Taka’s quest to find the whereabouts of Jun.
Cine-Note 3: While this tension originates from Jun’s subjectivity, the shaky framing characterizes the given interaction as marked by her subjectivity. So one could even read in this externalization of subjective tension a subtle illustration of the relational nature of subjectivity.
The use of the shaky-shot is also used at other moments, without the implication of subjectivity.
Sound-note 1: The sound-design enables Chauhan to put emphasis on the speech of characters as such. Speech is also emphasized in other ways. By way of example: at certain moments, the camera focuses on the listener, while we hear speech from the speaker. This separation enables the subtly underlining of the signifiers Jun as subject utters. The voice-over in the beginning – before the title of the narrative appears, works in very much the same way: it introduces a confronting question waiting the be resolved in the narrative.
Music-note 1: As mentioned in cine-note 2, the narrative often shifts to Taka’s perspective. When music is applied in these shifts, the music solely underlines the tension in certain interactions.
Narra-note 1: One relation that is remarkably different from all the others, is the relation between Jun and Yuki (Takashi Kawaguchi), her ex-boyfriend. It is only when she meets him, that subtle positive emotional expressions appear on the face of Jun – Yuki being a subject that remains outside the circle of abuse. Also note that this relation and the rekindling of their love is instrumental to diminish Yuki’s position as outsider within her hometown.
Narra-note 2: Note how Jun’s acts have no other effect than to rob herself of the possibility to attain an inclusive place within the social bond. The lack of speech and her fleeing from Yuki’s car into the middle of nowhere in the final scene, is symbolic of the place she ultimately carves out for herself: a place, beyond society, in the middle of nowhere.