It does not always happen that a narrative disrupts our top 10 Japanese movies, but Ken Ninomiya, with his The Limit Of Sleeping Beauty, has succeeded in claiming, two years after the fact, one of the top spots in our top ten Japanese movies of 2017. This moment underlines that not all brilliant narratives are able the receive the exposure they deserve. And to rectify this, we gladly present our review.
One night, after running away from her hometown, Aki Oria (Yuki Sakurai), who wants to become an actress, enters a bar in Tokyo. By chance, she meets Kaito (Issey Takahashi), the owner of Aurora Circus, who, under pressure of the barman, invites her to live at his circus. In exchange for his kindness, she proposes him to work at the circus. As she starts working as a magician’s assistant, a romance between her and Kaito starts blossoming as well. But before their romance can come to full bloom, its abruptly ended by Kaito’s suicide.
The Limit of Sleeping Beauty is a visually evocative romance narrative concerning the particular subjective problem born from the traumatic tension between love and death. This traumatic tension is already evoked early on in the narrative by revealing Aki’s existence as lost in space and time. That her ‘being lost’ is related to the experience of love is literally evoked when Aki, auditioning for the part of Ophelia, is unable to answer the question what love is – the fact that she is at a loss for words translates her being as lost perfectly. This inability to answer evokes furthermore her lack – the empty space that marks her subjectivity.
The emptiness evoked at the level of love is contrasted with the fullness of enjoyment, a sexually charged enjoyment that drives her, by losing herself in it, to the limit. Be it at the level of love’s emptiness or at the level of the fullness of (her body) being enjoyed, her lack, a lack related to the non-existence of an inter-subjective romance persists in a sensible way. Enjoyment – a being enjoyed by music, alcohol and/or drugs – is also, as is beautifully visualized, that which surrounds her. One could even say that the fullness of the enjoyment, this fullness of an enjoyment that is never enough, denies the truth of love and evades the evocation of the importance of an intersubjective connection and the place of enjoyment – the meeting of bodies – within such relationship as such. This denial is nevertheless not complete, as the narrative subtly touches upon the metonymic nature of desire – the fulfillment of desire as ever false, and more importantly on lack as such. Even in the fulfillment of a dream, one cannot erase lack (Narra-note 1).
By playing with the temporal dimension of Aki’s narrative, focusing instead on her existence, Ken Ninomiya has crafted a narrative structure that feels refresh (Cine-note 1 (spoiler)). While the temporal play often blends three or four different moments of Aki’s narrative into one metonymic concatenation, the diffuseness of the temporal dimension does not really problematize the spectator’s ability to somewhat structure the space and time that constitutes the various moments of her subjective position (Cine-note 2, Cine-note 3). Concerning the narrative structure, it is also important to note that the various fragments of Aki’s narrative – the concatenation of fragments up until the reveal of the narrative’s title, leaves Aki’s time at Aurora largely un-signified. By the enthralling introductory concatenation, the narrative succeeds in enticing the spectator – evoking an irresistible wanting-to-know, by evoking a minimal structure of signifiers (Aki-love-Kaito-death-emptiness), a structure waiting to become truly signified as the narrative metonymically unfolds (Cine-note 4).
The full complexity of the narrative can only be understood by its middle, the framing of the romance, and its very end (Narra-note 2 (Spoiler)). In the middle of the narrative, the minimal structure of the opening sequence leads to the touching framing of the narrative’s nodal point, Aki’s inter-subjective romance with Kaito. And then, as Aki’s subjective position is getting puzzled together, the narrative in its very unfolding is put into question. Due to a crazy plot-twist, a true what-the-fuck moment, Aki’s subjective narrative of romance is turned into a questioning of her mental state – a mental state directing the cinematography as the narrative’s structure, and into a questioning of which fragments forms the true ground for her subjectivity and which ones are fantasy (Narra-note 3, Narra-note 4). This questioning is eventually, even though some narrative vagueness persists, put to a halt by the final scene which as final signifier touchingly reveals the simple subjective theme dictating Aki’s narrative.
The cinematography of The Limit of Sleeping Beauty consists of a blend of crude or fluid moving shots, subtle following shots, and semi-fixed floating shots. What‘s most impressive about the cinematography is not so much the enticing energy of the blend but the natural fluidity by which it support the framing of Aki’s narrative, a fluidity subtly introducing the spectator to the mesmerizing and energetic visual ride that awaits him. The fact that The Limit of Sleeping Beauty concerns the subjectivity of Aki is quickly revealed by the narratives tendency to focus on her and circle around her (Cine-note 5). Another aspect that reveals the power of the cinematography is the very way in which uncommon or downright unconventional perspectives are used and how various techniques (like slow-motion, fast-forwards, jump-cuts, …etc.) are naturally integrated to create fresh, energetic and visually appealing sequence-compositions – the gin-tonic sequence for instance. What these compositions factually underline, is Ninomiya’s cinematographical focus on evoking Aki’s subjective experience.
Up until one point in The Limit Of sleeping Beauty, Aki’s narrating voice is used to structure her narrative (Cine-note 6). By way of this narrating voice, Aki’s fundamental subjective position gets grounded for the spectator. The insistence of the signifier ‘actress’ throughout the various fragments, for instance, might not directly guide the narrative’s structure, but installs the grounding consistency of Aki’s subjectivity.
The visual appeal of The Limit of Sleeping Beauty is further heightened by its captivating colour-design. Most narrative spaces are characterized by an interplay between neon-ish reds, blues, greens, and yellows. The beauty of the colour design is not only found in the mood and atmosphere it evokes, but also in the way it is applied in the composition of shots as such. Sometimes the rich colour palette used to subtly compose shots in a geometrical way. In one shot in the opening sequence, for instance, the reds and purples of the background are contrasted with the blues that highlight Aki‘s face (Colour-note 2).
The music and sounds of The Limit Of Sleeping Beauty are instrumental in supporting the fresh and energetic of the sequence compositions. One should even say that it is only by way of the synth-pop-like music that the energy and the mesmerizing nature of the cinematography is able to become sensibly evoked. As music and imagery comes to form an inseparable couple, the music also perfectly fulfills its role of setting the mood of Aki’s subjective position – at some points, we truly are able to feel Aki’s being as being enjoyed by the music (Music-note 1).
For a narrative so fundamentally grounded in subjectivity, we’re happy to see that the narrative is carried by the beautifully layered performance of Yuki Sakurai (Call Boy (2018), Shinjuku Swan (2015)). While her performance is important in supporting the revelation of the narrative’s ‘truth’, this revelation is only able to become moving by the sensible chemistry between Yuki Sakurai and Issey Takahashi (Blank 13 (2018)).
The Limit of Sleeping Beauty is, in short, a beautiful refined work of art. Ninomiya’s visual way – a way allowing the narrative subjectivity directly structure the cinematographical fabric, of approaching the radical difficulty to integrate the death of a loved-one into one’s own subjectivity is utterly mesmerizing and touching. The touching nature of The Limit of Sleeping Beauty is not only function by Ninomiya’s perfect grasp of the visual medium, but also due to the amazing performance of Sakurai. Sakurai’s subtly layered performance pulls the spectator’s into the narrative, leaving him but one wild mesmerizing way out (General-note 1).
Cine-note 1: The narrative’s structure is actually circular in nature. It is only by way of this circular structure, that Ninomiya is able to evoke the inescapability of fantasy. Only the final sequence, a final full of action, that constitutes a radical break with the subjective reality of being lost in time and space.
Cine-note 2: The temporal dimension is (sometimes) manipulated as well. At one point, we see the young Aki watching present Aki on a television show. One can read this sequence as the very satisfaction young Aki felt by dreaming herself as actress on television as well as the very satisfaction present Aki feels by seeing her fantasies as a child realized.
At another point, we see present Aki seeing her younger self entering circus Aurora for the very first time. This shot-composition is furthermore used as a way to shift from the present to the past – to frame a flashback in other words.
Cine-note 3: Note that it is due to the metonymical dimension, one moment metonymically contrasted with another moment, that a temporal structure of the various fragments of Aki’s narrative is able to be constructed.
Cine-note 4: The unfolding of Aki’s narrative, especially the framing of her time at Aurora, is function of narrative rest-moments.
Cine-Note 5: After she puts on her mask in the club-sequence, there is a short subjective-shot, a POV shot. This further emphasizes the centrality of her subjective position.
Colour-note 1: In another shot in the opening, the contrast between the greens and the yellows divides the shot in a left side, the side of Aki, and a right side, the side of the barman.
Narra-note 1: For us, the lack that is brought to the fore is nothing other than the lack introduced by death, Kaito’s death. Is it not from this moment, this subtle confrontation, that the escape Aki sought in fantasy loses its direction? Is it not from the moment that the fantasy comes to enjoy Aki instead of the other way around?
Let us note that after this subtle confrontation, the narrative quickly touches upon dealing with death through Aki’s utterance of imagining another world where Kaito is desiring for her. Should be not read this fantasy as a support of her desire to be desired by Kaito?
Narra-note 2: The narrative should be read as the visual expression of someone trying to cope with the reality of death in fantasy – a fractured meandering fantasy she loses herself in. The limit of our sleeping beauty is death itself, the death of her lover. Whatever she fantasizes, nothing can cover up the hole of death, the traumatic hole that made her flee into fantasy.
Does the breaking of the circular narrative structure – see cine-note 1 – not coincides with Aki’s acceptance of the subjective lack born from Kaito’s death? It the breaking of the circular not her choice to be, instead of letting her be-ing be lost in fantasy?
Narra-note 3: While the narrative also touches upon the exploitative aspects present within show business, the framing of this exploitation is not the main focus. The sexual exploitation present within showbiz is, instead, meant to frame her first subjective act of saying “no”. It is only from this point in the narrative that, Butch (Ippei Sasaki), an inner fragment of Aki, is able to reveal the way out for her existence.
Narra-note 4: Note that most rest-moments, those moments revealing Aki’s time at Aurora before Kaito’s death, concerns the truth of her existence.
Cine-note 6: The narrating voice denotes those moments denoting the truth of her existence. Note that Aki’s narrating voice disappears as Aki loses herself in her fantasies.
Music-note 1: Note that the evoked atmosphere is as much function of Aki’s subjectivity as the cinematography.
General-note 1: When compared with We Are Little Zombies – an equally impressive narrative with vague stylistic similarities, The Limit of Sleeping Beauty reveals itself as the better narrative of the two, as it has found a better balanced limit for its own visual extravaganza.