Almost a Miracle (2019) review [Fantasia Film Festival 2019]

Introduction

In 2017, Yuya Ishii directed The Tokyo Night Sky Is Always the Densest Shade of Bluea narrative that despite its cinematographical inconsistency had to be praised for its daring experimental nature and the poetic eloquence by which the narrative frames the possibility of two lost souls to find each other as subject in a sensible way. In other words, beyond the flaws of the narrative, The Tokyo Night nevertheless highlighted Yuya Ishii’s talent as director.

Two years after The Tokyo Night Sky Is Always the Densest Shade of Blue, Yuya Ishii is back with a brand-new feature-length narrative. This time he adapts Yuki Ando’s successful and award-winning shojo-manga Machida-kun no sekai

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Review

While Hajime Machida (Kanata Hosoda) is not good at studying or playing sports, he does excel in friendliness – something that makes him loved by those around him. One day at high-school, Hajime Machida cuts himself while woodcutting at art class. In the nurse’s room, he meets Nana Inohara (Nagisa Sekimizu), who is, according to girls-gossip, a slut just like her mother.

As the school’s nurse is absent, Nana Inohara decides to treat Hajime Machida’s injury. She suddenly confesses that she hates people. Due to her confession, Hajime Machida starts caring about her, a caring that sorts profound effects on Nana Inohara.

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Almost a Miracle is as much a quirky coming-of age narrative as it is a romance narrative. Put more correctly, the narrative concerns the coming-into-being of Machida-kun in the dimension of love. Machida-kun, our hero, is a rather strange person. Born from a love for all people, he lives his life in pure friendliness, a friendliness he exhibits irrespective of person. But this friendliness, as fabulous as it may seem, circumvents his own subject – it evacuates his subject from his actions. Due to Machida-kun’s complete lack of selfishness – receiving is never a goal, some students denote him as saintly or even as Christ. The fact that Machida-kun lacks at the level of academics and sports – his castration, turns Machida-kun in a truly atypical hero – something that is truly refreshing. Castrated as he is, he is only able to give proof of his love, his ‘suki’. 

If he thinks it will please the other, Machida-kun is unable to say ‘no’. In other words, Machida-kun only knows to answer the lingering demand of love, a demand hiding in the demands of the others, in an affirmative way. He always gives the proof of his love/’suki’, a proof that, as psychoanalysis learns, in never enough as the demands are virtually infinite. The fact that Machida-kun promises to return Inohara’s handkerchief, despite her statement to throw it away, might seem like a contradiction, but only if one fails to account for Inohara’s subjectivity (Narra-note 2).

Inohara is, in a certain way, the opposite of Machida-kun. While Machida-kun is not able to question the goodness of men, Inohara hates and distrusts people – her hate makes her avoid social interactions as much as possible, while her distrust makes every friendly act suspicious (Narra-note 3). Machida-kun’s honest friendliness forces Inohara into social interaction, into speech-relating with other speaking-beings. This forcing due to his kindness, the act of giving his proof of love, does not leave Inohara untouched, as the fantastical and romantic fantasies she subsequently has highlights, and unchanged as her positive entrance into the social reveals (Narra-note 4).

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But the repeated proofs of love she receives from Machida-kun – in acts and in words – makes Inohara confused, confused about the symbolic weight of his acts and his words (Narra-note 5). Can she interpret his acts/words as proof of koi or not, as love for her or not? This question of interpretation also leads another girl to a misunderstanding of which proof Machida-kun’s acts/words gives – a misunderstanding obviously upsetting Inohara. 

The very reason for this interpretive difficulty and possible misunderstandings find their origin is the fact that Machida-kun is blind to the signified of his own acts/words. In other words, he does not see/recognize that his acts/words of ‘suki’ have the possibility of expressing his ‘koi’. This problem is doubled by the fact that he does not see the signifier of ‘koi’ in the acts/speech of others (Narra-note 6).

Inohara’s confusion also makes Machida-kun confused. While his confusion seems to originate from not knowing what ‘koi/tender passion’, the love for one, is and how it differs from ‘suki/fondness’, the love of all, it is the birth of the beautiful selfish koi that silently troubles him. It is, in other words, the birth of the love for one above all – an act Zizek would call evil – that thrusts him into the space of confusion. The central question of the narrative thus becomes concerns if  Machida-kun will be able to recognize his own feelings of ‘koi’ in his acts of ‘suki’. 

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What makes Almost a Miracle so special and refreshing is that it succeeds, beyond framing some well-known romance tropes, in touchingly revealing – albeit in an exaggerated way – the very equivocal nature of acts/signifiers within the social bond in general and in the game of love in particular. Another aspect that supports the narrative’s refreshing nature is the very fact that the narrative explicitly plays with the question of what love is without providing any answer. 

What makes the cinematography of Almost a Miracle so pleasing is the fluidity of the cinematographical mix. The fluidity of the cinematographical composition is born from a natural mix of various types of shots – fixed shots, fluid moving shots, trembling moving shots, fluid following shots, … etc. While there are no true rules governing the framing, one cannot say that its fluidity for fluidity’s sake or variety for variety’s sake. What the opening-concatenation reveals, by subtly singling out Hajime Machida as main character, is that Yuya Ishii uses cinematographical variety in a thoughtful way (cine-note 1). It is due to this variety that Ishii is able to underline Hajime Machida’s centrality in the narrative, beyond the mere cinematographical circling around the main character. This versatility also allows Ishii to subtle translate certain emotions for the spectator.

Other cinematographical focus points, moments focusing on Machida’s classmates for example, further emphasize his centrality, but in an indirect way. These focus points, furthermore, introduce Nana Inohara as the narrative’s second central character, revealing, as such, the main narrative thread concerning the development of their relationship and subjective changes that this relation may cause (Cine/narra-note 2).

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The presence of subtle cinematographical flourishes, like slow motion and fast forward, and lighthearted visual touches, are integrated in a wonderful way – without disturbing the narrative flow. The flourishes and visual touches are, in other words, integrated harmoniously with the cinematographic fluidity. The fluidity of the cinematography is further enhanced by musical accompaniment. At various moments in the narrative, the musical accompaniment pleasingly dictates the fluid rhythm of the cinematography. It is because of this marriage, a coupling of music and cinematographical fluidity, that the narrative attains an important part of its lightheartedness. But this marriage is also important to make the tender, romantic, touching moments – the narrative is littered with them – truly effective.

Lightheartedness and subtle comedy also originates from speech-interactions – mainly those between Sakae (Atsuko Maeda) and her friend, certain acts (like the noisy way Nishino (Taiga) confesses his love) as well as from a slight touch of overacting (e.g. Machida’s way of running) that often marks interactions (Narra-note 1). This touch of over-acting, an over-acting most sensible in the character of Machida-kun, never fails to keep the mood of the narrative light.

Nagisa Sekimizu’s performance is, in short, amazing. Her mesmerizing presence brings the various layers of her character believably to the fore – a feat supporting the framing of her subjective evolution and the romantic thread as it unfolds. Kanata Hosoda’s performance also has to be applauded. He is able to bring the honesty that surrounds his non-knowledge at the level of romance endearingly to the fore (Acting-note 1). While Sekimizu’s performance is of course instrumental to the unfolding of the romantic thread, the framing of the romance only becomes captivating because of  the amazing chemistry between Sekimizu and Kanata Hosoda.

Almost a Miracle is a quirky and refreshing narrative full of moments of honest human emotions. More than that, it succeeds in becoming one of the most clear evocations of the equivocal nature of language, a truth that especially resides in the dimension of love/being in love and the play of courting. Utterly moving and pleasantly heartwarming, Almost a Miracle is one of most original narratives about coming-into-being and that beautiful evil little thing called love to be released in recent years.

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Notes

Cine-note 1: The first moment that evokes Hajime Machida’s narrative centrality is the contrast between the shot of blurry window-view and the sharp view from the window, a contrast mediated by Machida putting on his glasses.

Cine-note 2: There various other characters that the narrative cinematographically focuses on:  Rira Sakae and Yohei Yoshitaka (Sosuke Ikematsu). Note that Yohei Yoshitaka, in his narrative role, underlines the divide between the brutality of selfishness – what he denotes as evil – and Machida-kun’s friendliness, which is beyond any selfishness.

Narra-note 1: One such humorous moment happens immediately after Machida-kun has gone to the nurse’s room, when two of Machida-kun’s female classmates discuss the possibility of romance between Machida and Inohara. Beyond the funniness that resides in this speech-interaction, this moment introduces the direction the narrative will take.

Narra-note 2: One can sense here that Machida-kun follows the societal rules of courtesy in a strict manner. When some-one lends you something, you return it, even if the partner in question does not want it back.

Narra-note 3: Inohara’s statement, “Throw the handkerchief away”, has to be read as born from her negative stance in life. She not only refuses the handkerchief, she also refuses to let herself become part of social interaction.

Narra-note 4: The fantastical enters the narrative again at the end. One could read this return as the realization of Inohara’s true desire.

But let us also note that the framing of the fantastical, a surprising twist, features some awkward shots. Nevertheless, the awkwardness does not distract from the pleasure to be had from the narrative’s conclusion.

Narra-note 5: Note that Inohara does not questions the acts he does, but questions the signified of the signifiers, like ‘precious/daisetsu(na)’.

Narra-note 6: Due to his (thoughtless) friendliness for all, he eventually creates more problems in the already difficult dimension of love.

Acting-note 1: What makes Hosoda’s  moments of over-acting truly acceptable is the fact that Machida-kun’s peculiar reactions are always given a place within the narrative space as such, due to Inohara’s reactions for instance. In this way, Machida-kun’s peculiar reactions are implied as being part of who he is – and not so much function of the need to be funny.

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