With Playroom, Nario, Matsugake, Makoto Sasaki, and Takuya Fukushima (known from his narrative Modern Love (2017), four mavericks of Japanese cinema, present an unique tribute to actress and stripper Miho Wakabayashi.
By giving Miho Wakabayashi, also know as Wakamiho, ‘a mature woman adored by women’ her first leading role, the focus is to reveal the beauty of Wakamiho through four unique perspectives (General-note 1).
Before delving in our commentary of the individual narratives, we first want to provide some general commentary on Playroom as a whole. The four narratives of Playroom provide a good variety at a narrative level and prove, as Miko Wakabayashi is the insisting element throughout these narratives, that she is able to support, through her acting, each narrative in a satisfying way. Even though all four narratives are interesting in their own way – interesting at the narrative level as such, one cannot say that these narratives, in their concatenation, are consistent in their cinematographic ‘quality’. Especially the third narrative in the sequence, despite offering a confronting truth about our the power of our look, is somewhat at cinematographical odds with the rest of the narratives (Cine-note 1).
Nadowa focuses on Kengo Kimura (Kiyohiko Shibukawa), a drummer of a small band. He thinks that their last song, called Nadowa, has the potential to become a major hit and might even make him and the band famous. As he shares his fantasy of the future with his girlfriend Riko (Miko Wakabayashi), he casually underlines that it would be better for them to marry soon. Riko, surprised, asks him if he just proposed to her.
Nario’s narrative beautifully evokes the role of fantasy within the subjective economy. While the aspect of marriage slips into Kengo’s fantasy, his underlying desire toys with enjoyment – an enjoyment, subtly sexual, of women. In other words, the phallic attraction is the main current in Kengo’s fantasies. Having said that, the narrative does focuses on marriage through the emphasis on the role of Riko’s father – i.e. the tradition of asking one of the parents for her hand. One could thus also read a feeling of being castrated – feeling of not being worthy – into Kengo’s initial fantasy.
Nodawa succeeds, within a limited time, to successfully framing a believable relationship – a believability attained, in fact, by one central touching moment. While we need to applaud the director for this, we should not forget that it is, first and foremost, the performance of Kiyohiko Shibukawa that makes the framing of this relationship truly work. While a cinematographical preference for movement (fluid moving shots, following shots, …) can be discerned, semi-fixed shots are thoughtfully applied as well – either to emphasize facial expressions within speech-interactions or to introduce and thus establish a narrative space.
Lion, directed by Hiroyuki Matsukage, is a highly experimental experience about subjectivity/fantasy, (auto-erotic) sexuality/enjoyment, the problem of emotions, the (difficult) relation to others within the societal Other, and the role of art. Despite this thematic density, the evocative beauty of the picture is more important in this narrative. As the concatenation of imagery is only vaguely linked to the metonymical slipping of the signifiers of narration – i.e. the monologue that gives the direction to the imagery, one should not aim to find the narrative structure beyond the freely associative concatenation of signifiers and imagery (as marked by signifiers). One should, thus, float on the signifiers of the monologue and the compelling cinematographical composition – a composition not without references to the Japanese nouvelle vague – that supports the monologue.
One can discern two registers of cinematographical play in the framing of Lion, the use of colour and the play with shot-speed. The former concerns the switching between colour and black-and-white used throughout the narrative. While one may think there is a reason motivating this colour-switching, the switching, as the narrative progresses, seemingly happens at random. The latter concerns the mix between slow-motion, natural-motion, and slightly speed-up shots. While interesting as an idea, some of the speed-up images within the cinematographical concatenation – especially those in the beginning of the narrative, feel awkward – an visual awkwardness, a ripple in the cinematographical flow, that cannot be emptied by the narrative’s meaning.
A kid on the Alley of Atami, directed by Makoto Sasaki, is a narrative based on Yuri Obitani’s “A Kid on the Valley”. The narrative, in short, concerns a man (Ryubun Sumori) who goes to Atami and decides to follow a woman he accidently sees on the street (Miho Wakabayashi).
While the travel-movie-like composition of the narrative – a composition almost completely emptied of speech – initially creates a certain disorientation, orientation is found when the woman enters the frame. She, as character, attracts the (male) look that the camera presents (narra-note 1). It is this moment that turns the narrative turns into something else, i.e. a game of erotic, sexualized looks.
The fact that the composition mimics a travel-movie and emphasizes the male-look, reveals that something happens at the level of the cinematography. Even though semi-fixed shots are present, the narrative constitutes a tension between fluid floating and hand-held moving shots – shots marked by a shaky framing. It is by way of this tension but, first and foremost, the insertion of the latter into the cinematographical mix, that the narrative reveals its voyeuristic tendencies and its aim to implicate the spectator in the voyeuristic act. The camera becomes, in other words, sexualized and is given the power to eroticize.
The encounter between the man and the woman is marked by a subtle melancholic emptiness. The atmosphere of melancholy is made present by the slightly washed-out-colours that characterize the spatial fragments – the shots – that evoke the narrative space of Atami space and underlined by the melancholic music that support the beginning and the end of the narrative (Music-note 1).
Takuya Fukushima’s Floating, is a subtle but powerful romance-drama concerning the problematic relationship of a married couple. The problematic nature of their relationship is implied by two elements. First of all, the wife (Miho Wakabayashi) is unfaithful with someone she knows through her work. And secondly, the apartment she shares with her husband (Kiichi Sonobe) is full of pictures of Akari, their child. But while the child is present through the myriad of pictures, this presence subtly underlines the spatial absence of the child. In other words, both the wife’s unfaithfulness as the lingering absence of the child through its presence as picture, subtly evokes the problematic unsaid that has ruptured their relationship. But the presence of the picture is also – and this is not un-important – that what still binds them (Narra-note 2).
The narrative is mostly framed with fixed shots, even though very subtle moving shots are present in the cinematographical mix. What is most pleasing about Fukushima’s composition is its application of lighting throughout the narrative. It is especially in contrast with the other short-narratives, that the technical refinedness of the cinematography and the importance of lighting design for visual pleasure becomes evident. In other words, on a cinematographical level, Floating is the most pleasing of the four narratives constituting Playroom.
As a composition of four unique narrative, Playroom truly succeeds in framing/celebrating Wakamiho’s matured beauty in radical different ways. Be it as girlfriend (Nadowa), ‘art-philosopher’ (Lion), object of the erotic male gaze (A kid on the Alley of Atami), or as estranged wife in Floating, each director successfully employ her beauty (and talent as actress) in order to touch the spectator. But not all is perfect. Due to the differences in cinematographical quality, Playroom is also somewhat aesthetically uneven. But even marked by this unevenness, Playroom our four mavericks have still created an interesting and compelling omnibus (General-note 2).
General-note 1: Note that the international version of Playroom has only four narratives, instead of five. Our cover picture and the trailer are not those for the international version, but for the Japanese version.
Cine-note 1: However, one can say that the quality the narrative lacks, supports the narrative’s aim to reveal our look as ever eroticizing. That’s why it might be better to underlines it’s in odds with the rest, instead of underlining the difference in quality.
Narra-note 1: The male voyeuristic look is eventually turned around – the woman frames the man, doubling our position into spectator and the character whose eroticized look we shared. Note his discomfort of being taken as object of look.
Music-note 1: The song called Genet The Degeneration by Yuri Obitani, obviously refers to Jean Genet, the unconventional French writer. Genet also inspired the narrative called Diary of a Shinjuku Thief (1968).
Narra-note 2: Floating also frames a new beginning for their relationship. Note that the lingering presence of the Akari’s picture has to be reduced in order to give the relationship a re-start. In other words, Floating shows that the rupture between two people, can always be mended – a mending that is always a particular writing between the two people that constitute a relationship.
General-note 2: If we were to give individual scores for the narratives, then the scores would be respectively: great, great, good, amazing.