When U-ki Yamato set out to create this anthology, she had but one goal: to enable herself and thirteen emerging Japanese female directors to approach girlhood within the 21th century from the perspective of sexuality or gender. Besides a thematic limit and an 8 minute limit for each short movie, each director was given the freedom to craft an original narrative born from their respective subjectivity.
While 21th century features an abundance of narratives concerning womanhood/girlhood, each one different than the one before, various themes can be discerned, themes that highlight the complexity of being a subject a such and, more particularity, being a female subject within a Japanese societal context.
The first theme we are able to discern is the relation of the male or female subject with the female body. The narrative of Yoko Yamanaka (Amiko (2017)), Anytime, Anywhere, is, due to its cinematographical inventiveness and the thematic preciseness, a truly powerful evocation of the ever problematic sexual relationship between a male and a female subject (Narra-note 1). Furthermore, within this relational conundrum, the female body, as site of enjoyment, is highlighted as the central axis (Narra-note 2). Another narrative that concerns the female body is Ayaka Kato’s Mucous Membrane. By exploiting the associative power of the signifier, Kato is able to subtly highlight the often tense relationship between women and their own sexual desire – a relationship affecting the very way one interacts with a male subject (Cine-note 1).
The second theme is society and the way a female subject is cultured by the language of one’s society and the images it conditions. The first narrative in the omnibus to delve into this theme is Yutina Kaneko’s projection. Aided by strong performance by Sairi Itoh, Kaneko is able to successfully show the fragility of subjective growth, emphasize the inherent beauty of each individual woman, and condemn the insecurity societal images concerning attractiveness induce. Yuka Eda’s narrative love desiccant is a youthful and humorous exploration of a first love that ultimately disappoints. By showing how Mikio fails to adhere to our heroine’s image of how a male subject should act within a relationship, Edo is able to evoke how society conditions expectations and fantasies concerning relationships. Eda’s narrative, furthermore, constitutes a nice play with imagery and symbolism and boasts a strong and endearing performance by Anna Yamada. The effects societal expectations can have on female subjectivity in particular and on individual dreams in general is explored in Kanae Higashi ‘Out of Fashion‘ (Cine-note 1). Behind the societal accepted facade of Morita, the love-interest of our heroine, lies nothing other than his personal subjective disillusion (Narra-note 3).
Desire/love constitutes the third theme. A subtle investigation of the often fundamental connection between love and sexual desire is delivered by Momoko Fukada’s Sex-less, Sex friends – a narrative with some fine cinematographical compositions (cine-note 1). Rin Tsuka, for that matter, emphasizes the ever problematic communication existing between female and male subjects. Wanna be your Cat introduces, in other words, nothing other than the fundamental misunderstanding concerning love and desire that exists between the sexes. And while Yukari Sakamoto’s Reborn is too evocative of this format, it still constitutes the clearest and most touching example of how the question “Do you love me? Can you lose me?” is ever in play in the neurotic’s subjective economy (Cine-note 2). The final narrative that concerns love and desire is Hana Matsumoto’s My love won’t go anywhere. In contrast to the other narrative’ Matsumoto’s narrative beautifully evokes the ego-imaginary – thus deceptive – dimension of love that is ever at work beneath the experience of love, the effects of being the loved-object, and the injury a break of the imaginary dimension of love can cause.
The fourth theme concerns the fantasy that underpins the functioning of each subject. Aya Igashi (know from her debut narrative A Crimson Star (2018)) investigates, with a pleasing blend between cinematographical reality and the dreamy framing of the underlying fantasy, the very fantasmatic world of a female subject, i.e. in this narrative the lesbian fantasy as well as the fantasy of being the male subject in the sexual act (Narra-note 4). And the fundamental lacanian truth that a woman, in embodying the object a for a man, i.e. by entering his fantasy without a limit, can be ravaged by that very man, is highlighted by Yuka Yasagawa’s cinematographically pleasing narrative Muse – pleasing at the level of composition and camera movement..
The final theme concerns Lesbianism or sexual identity. Risa Takeuchi’s Mirror may be about lesbianism, the fundamental aspect it highlights is the fact that even women can use a subject as an object for their own phallic recognition. We hear, in other words, in this narrative an echo of the fact that women can play with or even follow the male logic of sexuation. Another narrative that can be put under Lesbianism is Aimi Natsuto’s Spring-ing. While the set-up is great – a love-triangle between a gender diffuse girl and two other girls – and Natsuto is able to put her talent for crafting beautiful compositions on display, the narrative is not able to delve deep enough in the beauty and the complexity of its chosen theme.
There is one narrative that transcends each category mentioned above: U-ki Yamoto’s For Lonesome Blossoms. Besides being a truly pleasing visual ride – a ride corroborating Yamoto’s cinematographical talent – For Lonesome Blossoms is nothing other than a powerful celebration of the power of women and the centrality of women and mothers in each subject’s life. Yamoto furthermore succeeds to highlight the very necessity as well as the ever problematic nature of love for each (female) subject (Cine-note 3).
Overall, 21th century Girl is an omnibus that, throughout the myriad of short stories, is able to powerfully evoke the universal psycho-analytic truth that The Women as well the The Sexual Relationship does not exist. In other words, as the narratives concatenate, it becomes clear that, within the confines of Japanese society and Japanese language, each and every Japanese cultured woman is fundamentally different. As each narrative is born from the subjectivity of its director, each narrative reveals their uniqueness. And while the repeated use of photographs (see Projection, Out Of Fashion, Mirror, Muse, and Reborn) and photographers as characters point to a visual enjoyment some directors share, one should not forget that each narrative subtly implies that each director enjoys the visual in her own particular way.
And while the powerful revelation of the uniqueness of each female subject is one of the omnibus’s greatest strengths, this strength, as linked with the inherent structure of the cinematographical product, ultimately turns out to be its very weakness as well. As the spectator is confronted with an abundance of subjective narratives, one is barely given time to appreciate each narrative’s quality in an equal measure. It is thus not surprising that the more visually powerful shorts and those able to clearly evoke their message (e.g . For Lonesome Blossoms, Anytime, Anywhere, Mucous Membrane), efface the more subtle and evocative explorations of womanhood (e.g. Reborn).
Furthermore, some of short-narratives (e.g. Mucous Membrane, I Wish You Would Break, Spring-ing) feel like they are but a teaser for a full-length feature (Structure-note 1). While this can be seen as a negative – the failure of fully exploiting the short-movie medium within the structure of an omnibus, it also implies a positive aspect, as these narratives reveal their potential and, as such, tease the very talent these young female directors have.
While 21th Century Girl is an amazing cinematographical product, the omnibus is ultimately held back by its own ambition and its very own strength. As each narrative explores, in its own particular way, some aspect of the complex maze conditioned by the trinity sexuality, gender, and society, the spectator is introduced to the very complexity and beauty of subjectivity as such. But due to the abundance of narratives, the spectator is not given the time to appreciate and analyze each narrative in an equal measure – even though the spectator, function of his own subjectivity, will nonetheless be touched by two or more narratives. Notwithstanding this overabundance of narratives, 21th century girl is still a powerful plea for more support for female directorial talent and for more Japanese narratives that explore female subjectivity, question the nature of the sexual relationship, and investigate the effects society has on women and their subjectivity.
Narra-note 1: Yamanaka’s short narrative also sensibly evokes the possibility for the male subject to turn the sexual act into only a masturbatory practice.
Narra-note 2: As the narrative evokes sexual transgression (e.g. groping) as well as the failure of men to satisfactorily eroticize a female body, the narrative reveals that it is not concerned with the female body as such, but, instead, with the enjoyment of the female ego as linked with the erotization of their body by a male subject.
Narra-note 3: The message of this narrative is that young female subjects, as well as male subjects, should always try to follow their dreams.
Narra-note 4: On a more fundamental level, the desire that underpins both fantasies is nothing other than the desire to be the active instance within the relationship – activeness as culturally associated with maleness.
Cine-note 1: Ayaka Kato’s narrative is also noteworthy for its beautiful colour scheme. The same can be said for Kanae Higashi’s Out of Fashion, Momoko Fukada Sex-less, Sex friends and Yukari Sakamoto’s I wish you would break.
Structure-note 1: The ending animation that accompanies the ending credit is courtesy of Sakura Tamagawa. With this short animation she is able to show her talent and introduce the spectator to her unique animation style.
Structure-note 2: While Mucous Membrane works well as a short-narrative, due to the associative play with the signifier, we feel much more can and should be told about these two women and their relation to their own sexuality.