If there is one country in the world that loves dramatic tear-jerking love-narratives, it might be Japan. Quite often, these movies feature rather high-profile talents – male and female – in order to attract fan-bases to the cinema. At the surface, Drowning Love seems to be no different that those romance narratives of the past, but maybe Yuki Yamato is able to succeed in adding something new to the genre, instead of remaining stuck, like so many others, in the spider-web of tropes of the romance-genre.
When teen model Natsume Mochizuki (Nana Komatsu) hears that she has to give up her modeling in order to move with her family to Ukigumo, a small city in rural Japan, she is less than happy. But as her parents have decided to aid her grandfather in running the inn, she has no other option than to comply.
One day, while wandering around the coastal area – rather lost, she meets Kohichiro (Masaki Suda), the son of the prestigious Hasegawa family. She immediately feels attracted to him, but Koh remains distant towards her. Not long thereafter, the famous photographer Shogo Hironoh (Ryohei Shima) reaches out to Natsume and expresses his wish to shoot a solo photo-book of her. She accepts with the sole purpose to impress Kohichiro and focus his attention on her. Not surprisingly, it works.
At the Ukigumo’s fire festival, a guest at the inn comes running to inform her that her grandfather has collapsed and to urge her to come with him to the hospital. Alas, the guy in question has other intentions (General-note 1).
While various labels can be used to categorize Drowning love, this romantic youth drama is, in essence, nothing other than a coming-of-age narrative. Natsume’s narrative of love and trauma is, in other words, focused on framing her personal change. The first defining subjective experience of the narrative – Natsume’s encounter with the mysterious blond guy Koh – is directly function of her lack of having an orientation or a place within the rural community she has been dropped in. In other words, she, as outsider, finds in Koh a point of attraction – a point that orients her. While the character of bad-boy Koh might feel familiar for those who love Japanese romance narratives, Drowning Love is able to utilize the kami-context to clearly evoke the fundamental dimension of the neurotic experience of love. His rather arrogant attitude of not caring about the social harmony and the Kami gives him, besides a similar position of outsider, a phallic quality.
The narrative beautifully frames the game of pulling and pushing that ensues after Natsume’s encounter with Koh. While it remains playful, this game, as is subtle revealed, inherently has a dangerous element as it constitutes a toying with feelings as such. Besides th playfulness, the narrative also succeeds to touch upon the childishness, possessiveness, and the insecurity that being-in-love causes – note that Natsume needs Koh as a presence. While the first half of the narrative is of course somewhat romanticized, Drowning love succeeds in evoking Natsume’s first experience of love in a honest, believable and touching way.
And then the incident happens, a traumatic experience that changes Koh’s as well as Natsume’s subjective trajectory. But while the incident is framed in an effective way, the narrative is not able to emphasize the subjective impact of the event for Natsume in the same way as the narrative frames her being-in-love (Narra-note 1, General-note 2). The reason why the narrative is not able to invest more in sensibly highlighting the subjective effects of the event on Natsume as such, has to be sought in the fact that the focus of the narrative lies elsewhere. As the narrative focuses on the function of Koh within Natsume’s subjectivity, Drowning Love is, in this middle part, more concerned with framing how Koh’s trauma of castration affects both of them.
By calling Koh’s trauma castrating, we aim to highlight that the incident ‘breaks’ his ego. As he fails his symbolic promise, the real of his failure problematizes the phallic quality of his ego – for him as well as for Natsume. In other words, the event radically problematizes the imaginary phallus he supposed to have. His way of mending this castration is an escape into aggressive maleness, which is but a covering up of the essence of the trauma (Narra-note 2 (spoiler)). Driven by their trauma’s – trauma’s now underpinning their pulling and pushing, they fail to find each other at the level of speech, to find each other at the level of the unsaid (Narra-note 3). But this communicative failure concerns the reverberations – at the level of the ego-image – of Koh’s failure. Despite Natsume’s repeated questions about the circumstances of the intrusion and his failure – an appeal to him as subject, Koh’s initial answers have no other purpose than to push Natsume away and keep his failure, unknowingly touched upon by Natsume’s demands, buried.
Another important focus in the middle part of the narrative is the blossoming of the supportive relationship with Katsutoshi Otomo (Daiki Shigeoka), a fellow student who is in love with her. At a time that everyone avoids her, he is the one that decides to speak to her. The social bond that blossoms is marked by positivity and provides various heartfelt moments of lighthearted warmness.
The cinematography of Drowning Love, a blend of fixed, tracking and explorative shots, is exciting and wonderful. While movement is applied to track various movements, such as a car driving or the movement of a family as ensemble, the movement quickly reveals its focus on Natsume’s subjective position (Cine-Note 1, Sound-note 1). And its this subjective position that the narrative beautifully evokes by way of its exquisite composition – the true highlight of the narrative. While more un-subjective moments are present, the various inventive compositions have no other function than communicating Natsume’s subjective position to the spectator (Cine-note 2). One of these compositions concerns Natsume and Koh’s first meeting – the defining moment in the narrative. It is a composition that, by exploiting Natsume’s subjective viewpoint (i.e. the ambiguous shots and the evoked associations, which are as much hers as they are our own), is able to sensibly emphasize the emotional impact of this meeting on Natsume – an impact we feel as well (Cine-note 3).
The composition is also successfully exploited to infuse certain atmospheres into the narrative spaces. For instance, in Natsume’s revelation that Koh has swam in the ‘Kami-sama sea’, the discomfort among the other students is beautifully highlighted by the fast concatenation of shots which are juxtapositioned with the intermingling of speech and the musical accompaniment. Yuki Yamato has truly made this narrative a showcase of her talents – revealing her ability to evoke subjectivity and craft subjective atmospheres, talents she is sadly not fully able to exploit in the second part in the narrative. Even though subtle subjective compositions are still present, we feel that the latter part – given the dimension of the trauma – would have benefited from a continued cinematographical emphasis on Natsume’s subjectivity. Furthermore, it in this section that the ever-present problem in adapting manga, i.e. the problem of under-representing essential narrative evolutions due to constraints at the level of the running time, is most sensible.
Luckily, Yuki Yamato is able to elevate the culmination point of the narrative with her compositional talent, and give, by applying the technique of evocation wonderfully, the finale the emotional power it deserves (Narra-note 2 (spoiler). The touching power of the subsequent outro is empowered by the very fact that it evokes what Natsume has lost and what she has gained. It is here, and only here, that the implicit truth that guides every neurotic speaking subject, i.e. the fact that the life-trajectory of the speaking subject is ever relational and that one’s loved-object ever acts as his life’s compass, is powerfully revealed.
In Drowning Love there is never a dull, corny or overly melodramatic moment. If there is some melodramatic moment, it originates from the successful evoking of subjectivity – an evocation made possible by the trinity between composition, acting and musical accompaniment (Sound-note 2, Acting-note 1). Concerning the musical accompaniment, Drowning Love is able to infuse music in a very natural intrusive way into the concatenations of compositions. While music is used for various reasons, e.g. emphasizing the lightheartedness of certain speech, exchanges or infusing a certain scene with a certain atmosphere, the most important function of these pieces is to sensible evoke the emotional moods of Natsume. But, in the second part of the narrative, the narrative subtly starts to overuse music, to that extent that it disturbs the otherwise natural ebb and flow of music accompaniment. While the choice for supporting these scenes with music might’ve been well-reasoned, the framing of Natsuke’s subjectivity, does not benefit from the accompaniment as such – the fact that silence can powerfully speak seems a bit forgotten by Yuki Yamato.
Drowning love is, besides being a rather unconventional love narrative, a demonstration of Yamato Yuki’s cinematographical talent. By framing the ever beautiful Nana Komatsu in a concatenations of inventive compositions, Yuki Yamato succeeds in showing how cinematography as such can be used to communicate subjectivity in a romantic narrative. By evoking her subjectivity in a way that allows the spectator to feel like she feels, Yamato has created, despite the obvious romanticism, a sincere and believable account of Natsume’s first love. Nevertheless, the source-material’s complexity is eventually felt in the way the narrative’s develops. While this makes, as a result, the second half of Drowning Love less powerful, the live-action narrative, as a whole, is still able to successfully evoke the main theme of the manga (i.e. the importance of a loved object for the well-being and trajectory of the neurotic subject) in a touching way. And of course, it is also an exquisite appetizer for the spectator who wants to explore the manga, which is, due to the very medium, more rich on character and relational development.
Narra-note 1: What the narrative does show is the emptiness that the intrusive event causes for Natsume. While one could say that she, as subject, escapes into the position of outsider, one should not bypass the fact that the intrusion as such makes as outsider of her.
A second aspect subtle evoked is the tension between image and subjectivity. For her female classmate, like Kana (Mone Kamishiraishi), she is but the celebrity-image of the magazines. This tension between image and subjectivity is most sensible in the scene where Kana, after Natsume’s attempted rape-incident, acts like nothing has happened, even though Natsume wanders around in a depressed mood.
Narra-note 2: Note that in the second meeting after the incident Natsume designates him as god. In other words, she tells him that, for her, he has it – it being the phallus. In this speech-exchange, her signifier mends his trauma temporarily, enabling a romantic moment as if nothing happened.
Note that after this romantic moment, Koh reveals his trauma of castration.
Narra-note 3: The ending has to be read as either an imagined mending of Koh’s position or an imaginary re-installment based on a given reality. Either way, the ending evokes nothing other than the re-erection – pun intended – of Koh as phallic, as Koh as her point of desire.
The re-erection of Koh as her point of orientation, the point that orientates her, her kami-sama, explains her success as actress as well. By finding Koh reflected in her acting-partner, she does not have to act her feelings. It is also a subtle way to highlight, an a romantic way, that her love for Koh is enduring.
Cine-Note 1: Note that the following shots that not explicitly focus on Natsume, Natsume is still implicitly implied in the shot, i.e. she is passenger in the car as well as she is part of the ensemble of the family.
There are of course exceptions to this rule, i.e. in framing Shogo Hironoh or Otomo. Even so, one could still argue that some of these moving shots mirror Natsume’s moving gaze.
General-note 1: Note that the fire festival and the concept of the kami is fundamental to the narrative in general and Natsume’s experience of love in particular.
General-note 2: While the narrative focusing on the gossip – gossip as creating distance between the female students and Natsume as subject – the narrative does not really focus on the importance to make narrative of the trauma – she is, as a matter of fact, left alone with her trauma. The possibility to make-narrative of the traumatic incident is problematized by the fact that, despite its coverage in the media, it does not receive a true symbolic conclusion. The settlement forbids the traumatic event from gaining a symbolic reality, a reality that would allow Natsume to work-through her trauma .
That such healing process of ‘making narrative’ lacks in Drowning Love can be understood as a subtle revelation of how Japanese society fails its female subjects.
Sound-note 1: The use of a narrating voice, further highlights the narrative’s emphasis of Natsume’s subjective position.
Sound-Note 2: Drowning Love also has a great crystal clear sound design. Noisiness is sensibly noisy, the calming sound of waves is sensibly calm, …etc.
Cine-Note 2: One obvious exception to this is the framing of the fire festival. This composition aims to evoke the atmosphere of the festival rather than any subjective experience of it.
One can see that the music of the festival is added to the imagery at the editing table, as the shot of a drummer reveals his drumming not to be in line with the music.
Cine-Note 3: Repetition of shots of this meeting – subjective flashbacks – keep on highlighting the impact of their meeting for Natsume. In one case, the flashbacks add additional information that was not present in the initial framing of the meeting.
Acting-Note 1: Nana Komatsu gives a truly great performance as Natsume. It is her performance as such that enables the blend of music and cinematographical composition to believably evoke her sincere experience of love.
The believable framing of her first love is also supported by Masaki Suda’s fitting performance. And Daiki Shigeoka’s performance and his chemistry with Komatsu succesfully infuses the narrative with touching lightheartedness.