While Akiko Ohku has been making cinematographic narratives for a while, it was only with Tremble All You Want (2017), a refreshing experience full of honest and heartfelt emotions, that she was able to impress many audiences. Of course, that narrative made many spectators look forward to her next narrative, a narrative based on Arako Toaru’smanga series “Bijin ga Konkatsu Shite Mitara”.
Designer Takako (Mei Kurokawa) is a woman in her thirties. While she has been dating for a long while, she always seem to end up with married men. One day, while sitting in the park, the thought of dying passes her mind.
That night, she discusses the appearance of this thought with her married friend Keiko (Asami Usuda), who emphasizes in an attempt to ease her, the commonness of the thought. Keiko also explains why she thinks Takako only ends up dating already married men. Her beauty, she says, scares single men, who deem her beauty unreachable, away, while married men are attracted by the very thrill of conquering her beauty in an illicit affair. Eventually, as the night progresses, Takako decided to start her marriage hunt and find her purpose and happiness in marriage.
Marriage Hunting Beauty, as a narrative, is focused on the framing of Takako’s subjective trajectory. This focus already revealed in the very opening of the narrative. As the explicit enunciation “I want to die” makes the emptiness of the scene appear as emptiness, this emptiness, this senselessness, comes to define the subjective starting point of our protagonist (Narra-note 1). Note that when this subjective starting point, as defined by the signifier “I want to die”, is repeated in the narrative, the reaffirmation of her emptiness is framed in a more lighthearted way (Narra-note 2). Takako’s decision to start actively hunting for marriage – the “I want to marry” – has to be seen as her own imagined solution for the emptiness and meaninglessness that drove her to the “I want to die”. She hopes, in other words, to give meaning to her life by marrying.
The aspect of marriage hunting – the narrative sequence of encountering weird men – is subtly presented as something beyond love (Narra-note 3). The first guy she meets, for instance, starts explaining, as a seasoned salesmen, the material benefits of marrying him – as he does not speak about himself, one could deduce that he does not see himself as something worth selling. Eventually, Makoto Sonogi (Tomoya Nakamura), a 91 percent match, a possibility to realize her solution for her emptiness, appears at the horizon. Even though this match gives her ego a boost and her life some direction, the transition from the virtual space (i.e. the imaginary-symbolic space of exchanging messages) to the space of reality (i.e. the imaginary-symbolic space where we move as real beings), has to happen. In other words, Takako has to confront her imagined ideal by meeting the less ideal (and slightly dorky) speaking being that was subjected to her image (Narra-note 4).
In the singles bar, Takako meets her second-marriage interest, the amorous experienced dentist, Yataba (Kei Tanaka). While the received attention of two different men boosts Takako’s ego – evoked in the narrative as the becoming shinier of Takako’s beauty (Narra-note 5), this moment of enjoyment one’s ego is only temporarily as Takako is suddenly faced with the dilemma of choosing between these two different men.
While Marriage Hunting Beauty touches upon different aspects related to the manipulation of the image – self-image as well as the image of the other – within the game of romance, one should not expect a deep questioning of the deceptive role of the image like in Asako I and II (2018), as, in line with the mood of the narrative, these aspects are only touched upon in a fleeting way.
The integration of the sex-scene might appear strange within the conventional lighthearted flow of the narrative, it does not fail to point out Ohku’s commitment to follow Takako’s emotional world and frame her subjective dilemma (and its resolution) in the narrative (Narra-note 5 (spoiler)). But the sudden tonal change that the sex-scene instigates – from bubbly lightheartedness to the seriousness of the problem of Takako’s desire – is not able to turn the resolution, the evocation of narrative’s central message (i.e. the fact that one cannot force the imaginary, the aspect of falling-in-love, in the game of love, into a truly satisfying conclusion. It is, in our view, not the realism of Marriage Hunting Beauty‘s resolution that is problematic, but the failure of Ohku to fully realize her commitment to sensibly frame Takako’s subjectivity once the tone of the narrative shifts (cine-note 1).
The cinematography of Marriage Hunting Beauty is a standard cinematographical affair – a concatenation of fixed shots, sometimes broken by subtle, fluidly or crudely moving or following shots. But even though the conventionality of the cinematography is apparent, one can still sense Ohku’s cinematographical sensibility as the narrative progresses.
While some comedy-moments (e.g. falling-from-the-bed) are predictable and dull in this lighthearted rom-com, there are still some genuine funny moments to be noted, e.g. the repetition of Sonogi’s vestimentary negligence. The lightheartedness of the narrative is, in some cases, further underlined by the accompaniment of short musical pieces or emphasized by a myriad of sounds – e.g. the sounds associated with Takako’s use of her phone. Even though the use of musicality for comedic effect could easily have been over-the-top, Ohku’s somewhat restrained application is successful in keeping the lighthearted flow of the narrative flowing until the tonal shift happens (Cine-note 2).
One highlight in Marriage Hunting Beauty is Mei Kurokawa’s charming performance, as Ohku enables her to fully exploit the power of her smile. She does not only fit the signifier ‘beauty’, but also evokes a cute uneasiness and endearing playfulness as she dives into the world of marriage hunting. But while Kurokawa’s performance drives the greater part of the narrative, her performance is, after the tonal shift, not able to make the narrative’s message felt as it should have been.
While Marriage Hunting Beauty is framed with the same cinematographical sensibilities as Ohku’s previous narratives, the beautiful and lighthearted framing of Takako’s subjective reality ultimately fails to turn the narrative’s central message in the moving resolution it should have been. In spite of this failure – a failure related to the narrative’s tonal shift, Marriage Hunting Beauty is still an enjoyable narrative, providing plenty of charming and touching moments.
Narra-note 1: Nevertheless, the enunciation is, subsequently, robbed by its subjective significance by Keiko, who turns this relevance into a common-place fait-divers among people. Keiko, in other words, fails to listen and, as is subtle evoked through Takako’s facial expressions, ignores the impact it had on Takako as subject.
Narra-note 2: Note that the second time Takako expresses “I want to die” there is no emptiness sensible in the narrative space. Instead, due to the musical accompaniment, there is a “fullness” that comes to be associated with her expression of “I want to die”. In other words, the “I want to die” has become a sensible presence in her ‘imaginarized’ subjectivity.
Narra-note 3: Mr. Umezawa gives a subtle, but funny remark concerning dating-websites. By complaining about the fact that Takako is more beautiful that her profile picture, the reversed truth is laid bare.
Narra-note 4: While Takako denoted men that are negligent on a vestimentary level as non-marriage material, she seemingly warms up to Sonogi’s vestimentary negligence. Takako also seems to warm up to his somewhat endearing silliness and his insecurity, as born from being faced with her beauty.
But one could nevertheless read this warming-up, even though it is not made clear in the narrative, as a lie Takako desperately wants to believe in.
Narra-note 5: In contrast to Sonogi, he does not respond to her messages. The reality of not receiving any response subtle forces Takako to question her worth. Despite this shortcoming, there is something – maybe something phallic – in the image of Yatabe that attracts Takako.
Narra-note 6: While Takako condemns her sexual desire, her sexual encounter should be read as a direct consequence of her marriage dilemma. This condemnation of her sexual desire eventually leads to her realization that she, in fact, was dying to fall in love. In other words, happiness is not to be found in marriage as such but in loving/desiring the person who loves/desires you.
General-note 1: Note that the Japanese societal image of marriage and the pressures that come with it are beautiful evoked through Keiko. While Keiko does not form the focus of the narrative, we, as spectators, are impelled to question the link between happiness and marriage. One can read this side of the narrative furthermore as a minor societal critique.
Cine-note 1: The flashbacks add a subtle level of emotion to the relational past of Takako.
Cine-note 2: The lightheartedness should be read as an additional support for the framing of her subjectivity.
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