“A subtle emotional narrative about the central question of love that bothers every neurotic subject.”
Wherever in the world, coming-of-age narratives underline certain societal and/or subjective problems and possible subjective solutions that enable to main character to overcome those obstacles and grow subjectively. Kenji Katagiri’s debut narrative Room Laundering, co-written with Tatsuya Umemoto, is no different. In Katagiri’s rather quirky comedy the problem of subjective isolation, a problem prevalent in Japanese society, takes the center-stage.
Even though most people just want to live peaceful and ordinary lives, unhappiness often comes – always uninvited – to disrupt their lives. For some like Yuki Chikamoto (Kaoru Mitsumune) this unhappiness comes in the form of being murdered. For others, the unhappiness limits itself to the difficulty of finding a new tenant for an apartment where someone died or was murdered. But there is a way to circumvent the Japanese law – the law that demands the landlord to inform the first new tenant about previous happenings – and to restore the apartments’ pristine reputation: Room Laundering.
One day, Goro Ikakuzi (Joe Odagiri) reaches out to his niece Miko Yakumo (Elaiza Ikeda). He provides her with a part-time job as stand-in first tenant, as Room Launderer. But, she can see ghosts.
While Room Laundering is full of ghostly phenomena, the narrative is in essence nothing other than a neurotic coming-of-age narrative or, more correctly put, a coming-back-into-society narrative. When we first meet Miko, she is nothing other than an introverted girl plagued by loneliness and one fundamental neurotic question concerning love: does my mother, who abandoned me, love me? In essence, Room Laundering concerns nothing other than neurotic doubt concerning love and the subjective inhibition that such doubt can cause (Narra-note 1).
One could even say that, at the beginning of the narrative, Miko is, due to the disappearance of her mother, neither alive nor dead. In other words, while she is alive and obviously part of Japanese society, she is not invested in the living society, e.g. she has few important societal bonds and her headphone acts as an instrument to close herself off from her societal surroundings (Narra-note 2). Furthermore, Miko shows limited interest in the world of the ghosts as well. While she is able to interact with various ghosts like Hagumu and punk rocker Kimihiko Kasuga (Kiyohiko Shibukawa), her defensive state of being keeps her in her comfortable passive twilight zone. It is only after a certain encounter that Miko is able to aid the various ghosts she has met. But will she also be able to return tothe societal world of the living (Narra-note 3 (spoiler))?
The act of Room Laundering finds its representation in the structure of the narrative, as the rooms Miko has to launder are formalized as chapters – the two rooms are introduced by a title shot informing the spectator of the size of the room and the tragic event that happened. In this way, Room Laundering is structurally divided in three chapters, each highlighting Miko’s changed subjective position or her position in the act of changing.
Don’t expect any slap-stick comedy in this narrative. Instead of being focused on framing pun after pun the comedy is more subtly interweaved into the fabric of the narrative. In fact, Room Laundering is quite successful in making lighthearted fun of the lurid without ridiculing it – the lurid even retains some of its disturbing dimension. That being said, there are some returning gags, like the one with Kimihiko’s hand and how Miko treats Tera, Goro’s thirsty mover (Music-note 1).
While the narrative does not aim to deeply explore the regrets, the unanswered questions, …. etc. of the various ghosts, the lighthearted framing of the lurid is still able to be touching at certain moments (Narra-note 3). Katagiri furthermore succeeds, by using more emotional tunes and framing Miko in a certain way, in highlighting her self-inflicted loneliness in a touching way. But the subjective change that Miko goes through – one of central elements of the narrative – is not as touching as could (or should) have been. The lack of emotional impact can, in this case, be attributed to the fact that the Miko’s subjective change and its consequences are crammed in the last fifteen minutes.
The cinematography of Room Laundering – which is decent – is full of movement. The mix of fluid movement, subtle movement, more crude shaky movement – which is only limited to framing flash-backs – creates a dynamic and pleasing cinematographical whole. Of course there are fixed moments – shots where movement comes to a halt – and fixed shots present in the cinematography. Besides providing variation, fixed shots are used to introduce and highlight narrative spaces, to frame certain conversations/interactions, and, probably the most important reason, to focus on Miko and on her often strange behaviour (Cine-note 1, Cine-note 2).
While the acting performances are good overall, the performance of the actor who plays Hagumu lacks the subtlety that the performances of the other ghosts have. Even though each ghost is acted with a subtle gust of over-acting, Hagumu’s staging feels ‘too acted’. Concerning the living, Elaiza Ekida’s performance is good – bringing enough emotional subtlety to make her emotional journey sensible. And Odagiri Jo – without doing anything special – stages Goro Ikazuzi with a natural coolness.
Room Laundering is a subtle emotional narrative about the central question of love that bothers every neurotic subject. But while Katagari successfully stages Miko’s subjective problem and infuses the side-narratives of the various ghosts with subtle emotion, the narrative eventually fails to give the fundamental change in Miko’s subjectivity the emotional power it deserves. Nevertheless, when all is said and done, Room Laundering is still a enjoyable quirky narrative and, in any case, a successful debut for Kenji Katagiri.
Narra-note 1: While her parents are gone, Miko still keeps the duck-lamp she received from her parents – a lamp related to the appearance of ghosts.
Narra-note 2: One could say that, initially, the only important social bond Miko has is with Goro – Goro who has given her a minimal space in society as room launderer.
Narra-note 3: It is only after meeting her mother that Miko, as subject, is able to return to the society of the living. One could say that, in light of Miko subjective trouble of being abandoned, her mother reconfirms her love for her daughter.
Narra-note 4: For example, when Hagumu complains about all the things (e.g. like fucking girls, drinking alcohol, …etc.) he cannot do anymore or when Miko explains her lurid drawings to Kimihiko.
Music-note 1: The lightheartedness of the narrative is also sensible in the kind of music that is applied throughout the narrative. In most cases, the music underlines in lightheartedly way the ‘strangeness’ of certain situations, e.g. how the ghost Kimihiko tries to get Miko’s attention.
Cine-Note 1: Of course, the use of fixed shots is not limited to these reasons. Often, sometimes in accordance with the lack of movement, sometimes to highlight a rather strange situation, other characters are framed with fixed shots as well.
Cine-note 2: Until Miko starting position in the narrative is explained, Miko’s voice is used as narrating voice.
Continuity-note 1: One could say that there is a continuity error in the scene where the cat enters Miko’s apartment, as the cat fails to ignore the supposed ghost in the room.