When we first saw Ken Ninomiya’s The Limit Of Sleeping Beauty we were immediately blown away by his energetic piece. His perfect grasp of the visual medium turned the narrative of love and accepting death into a moving cinematographic piece.
For his next visual narrative, Ninomiya decided to bring Kyoko Okazaki’s manga Chiwawa-chan (1996) to the silver screen. Readers might already know Kyoko Okazaki’s work through the live-adaptations of Helter Skelter (2012) and the more recent River’s Edge (2018) – both narratives getting high praise from us. As we respect Ken Ninomiya and Kyoko Okazaki, we of course looked forward, but not without any reservations, to Ken Ninomiya’s take of an Okazaki narrative.
One day, a dismembered body is found in the Tokyo Bay area. After one month, the body is identified as being Yoshiko Chiwaki (Shiori Yoshida), a 20-year old student. When her former friends decide to pay tribute to their deceased friend in the local café, Yumi (Tina Tamashiro), who was most close to Chiwawa, starts complaining about how badly she is portrayed in the news.
Miki (Mugi Kadowaki), in order to help reporter Yuko (Chiaki Kuriyama) write a more truthful account of Chiwawa’s life, starts asking questions about Chiwawa to her friends (e.g. Yoshida (Ryo Narita), Nagai (Nijiro Murakami), Katsuo (Kanichiro), but she quickly comes to realize that none of them really knew Chiwawa as subject.
While Chiwawa might seem to concern Chiwawa as such, it actually concerns the lack-of-knowledge or the fragmentary knowledge our friends have about Chiwawa-chan. As the narrative goes along, this lack of a definite knowledge concerning Chiwawa-chan becomes more sensible. If we say that an irreducible lack structures the narrative, it does not only point to Chiwawa’s death – a real lack, but also the ungraspable nature of her subjectivity. Her ungraspable nature comes to be underlined by the presentation of the different narrative fragments – mere vague superficial stories the others have concerning Chiwawa (Narra-note 1). While these fragments evoke the structural impossibility of truly knowing someone – to know his/her truth, it also shows that one is not able to grasp anything of a subject if one remains stuck in an imaginary mirror-palace. This evocation echo’s the truth of non-truth that Kurosawa’s monumental Rashomon made explicit.
While Miki’s conversation with the reporter is initially marked with a nostalgic feeling, a longing touching upon the beauty of youth, the beauty of being in love, the beauty of physicality, the beauty of enjoyment, Ninomiya brings us quickly in contact with what’s beyond that sparkling beauty: a shadowy emptiness. Our youthful characters are stuck within the field of enjoyment (e.g. sex, partying, … etc.) and the superficial sparkle of the imaginary (Narra-note 2).
The superficiality is, first and foremost, present at the level of friendship. In Chiwawa friendship is presented as a meeting at the level of the imaginary – an exchange of empty speech – and as a meeting based on sharing enjoyment. There is, in truth, no true interest in each other’s subjectivity, in that what makes the other Other. Read in this way, Chiwawa’s death and the subsequent realization of non-knowledge constitutes nothing other than a confrontation with the very superficiality of their social play-field – a conflictual field of ego’s.
Chiwawa also touches upon the structural presence of superficiality in the field of seduction – seduction as playing out in the imaginary field. When Miki learns that Yoshida’s pick-up line ‘omae dake nanka chigau, Only you are somewhat different‘ is but a standard sentence for him, the designation of being different she could appropriate is put into question, together with the image Miki had of Yoshida (Narra-note 3). Yoshida’s behaviour, stringing girls together without any hesitation, further underlines that it is not love that drives him but sexual desire. As one can expect, such behaviour, a behaviour solely eyeing enjoyment, is not without effect on the subjectivity of the girl, Chiwawa in this case, that fell in the trap of Yoshida’s captivating image (Psycho-note 1).
The psychological suffering that superficiality, as guided by an enjoyment beyond inter-subjectivity, causes is sensibly evoked in Miki’s narrative and Chiwawa-chan’s narrative, a narrative that unfolds in accordance with the unfolding of Miki’s narrative (Narra-note 4, sound-note 1). It is, nevertheless, only in contrast with Chiwawa that each ‘friend’ finds its position as marked by lacking an inter-subjective bonds. While the narrative overflows with enjoyment, one cannot fail to see that there is, within the narrative’s spaces, ever a tension present as function of the mirror. Ego-to-ego relations, as driven by enjoyment, always lead to conflictual emotions like jealousy for instance (Psycho-note 2,
The importance of superficiality for the narrative is also highlighted by Miki’s and Chiwawa’s modeling as such – a seductive play with the camera (Narra-note 5). The importance of the visual – the sparkling superficiality – is also underlined trough Nagai, a photographer and movie-maker. His films and pictures concern nothing but the erotisation of women and of Chiwawa in particular. They constitute, in other words, nothing other than a play with the algamatic potential of the imaginary field – if Nagai is in love with Chiwawa, it is because of that sparkling something she has for him.
As the narrative progresses – as Miki proceeds to question her former friends, there is nevertheless something of a purified truth, a sad truth that does not fail to touch the spectator in a profound way, that comes to be sensible (Narra-note 6). The subtle mental instability of Chiwawa, an instability function of her insecurity, points to Chiwawa’s irreducible feeling of not being loved. Does Joe Sakata (Tadanobu Asano), when they meet for the first time for a shoot, not perforate the superficial in other to bring her subject into play? Does he not uncover her emptiness behind the superficial relationships she has with her friends? Do we not see that, in her relation to Sakata, Chiwawa’s insecurity is born from the impossibility to receive a definite proof of the other’s love (Psycho-note 2)? And is her drifting not function of a search to receive love, a love function of her image, and to enjoy receiving love which, sadly, amounts to nothing other than losing herself in sexual satisfaction?
The cinematography of Chiwawa is an energetic and fluid blend of different shot-styles (fluid as well as shaky movement, unconventional movement, …etc.) and different cinematographical techniques (slow-motion, fast-forwards, the insertion of cam-footage, …etc.). While both fluid movement and shaky movement are applied throughout the narrative, it is the shaky movement that most explicitly emphasizes the irreducibility of cinematographical movement, an irreducibility infusing a feeling of documenting a reality into the narrative’s unfolding (Cine-note 1).
While Ninomiya – who also did the editing as such – has once again crafted a mesmerizing visual ride, a ride with various flashy and wild instances that engages the spectator from the beginning till the end, the cinematography, as a whole, is more subdued than his previous narrative. By finding a balance between flashy and subdued, Ninomiya succeeds in emphasize the central dimensions of this slightly more complex narrative (Cine-note 2). In other words, both the wild and the more ordinary instances sensibly emphasize, by evoking a contrast between the explicit presence of emptiness and the seemingly absence of emptiness – a emptiness sensibly hiding behind enjoyment, the inter-subjectivity is not what marks their relations. That the cinematographical fluid blend successfully highlights this emptiness beyond enjoyment, this emptiness as hidden by enjoyment, this emptiness as produces by enjoyment, an emptiness enjoyment does not want to know anything about, may very well be the biggest triumph of Ninomiya’s Chiwawa.
While the visual is important, Ninomiya does does not forget to emphasize the spoken signifier, an emphasis that, sometimes, by way of repetition, gives more meaning to a certain speech-act. By employing the cinematography in a masterful way, Ninomiya, in fact, succeeds in evoking the subtle difference between empty speech, the bla-bla of common discourse, and those speech-elements or acts that are not without effects on the subject (Narra-note 7).
Due to the amazing colour-design, Chiwawa has become a truly visually pleasing ride. Colour (Greens,yellows/oranges, blues…) is thoughtfully applied as a compositional device, creating geometrical divisions within shots as such. While the difference between the colourful flashy past and the plain present is not strict, Miki’s present is mainly framed with a subtle washed-out colour-scheme. One could say that these washed-out colours translate the blandness that marks Miki’s contemporary life.
In Chiwawa, musical accompaniment plays an important role in supporting the fluid and the sometimes more extravagant compositions. The empowering blend of music and imagery, as was the case in his previous narrative, sensibly supports the energy of the composition, a energy captivating the spectator, while infusing a certain emotional dimension into the narrative. In various cases, the music also comes to dictate, sometimes subtle, sometimes explicit, the flow of the compositions as such. If there is one difference to be noted with The Limit of Sleeping Beauty, it is the fact that musical accompaniment is also applied in a more subtle way, a subtle way giving almost all narrative spaces of Chiwawa musical support.
Chiwawa is another extraordinary narrative from Ken Ninomiya. With a precise cinematographical hand, he leads the spectator, via the mesmerizing and poetic framing of the excesses of enjoyment and the sparkling quality of the image, to a confrontation with a rather confronting truth about the contemporary relationships: the lack of investing in inter-subjective bonds and the lack of interest in the other as Other. With Chiwawa, Ken Ninomiya reconfirms his extra-ordinary talent, proving he is truly one of a kind.
Narra-note 1: What makes this these stories vague is the fact that no one establishes a true inter-subjective speech-relation with Chiwawa-chan. The narrative might say that they confided in each other, but this confiding, as is subtle shown, never went further than an imaginary exchange of vague empathy.
Narra-note 2: Both aspects lead to an inability to express things in a field we could call inter-subjective, e.g. Miki’s inability to express her discomfort about Chiwawa starting with Instagram. A friendship based upon such aspects is highly unstable, as is revealed in the narrative. The unsaid is a sign of the lack of an inter-subjective relation.
Narra-note 3: The revelation puts his honesty into question, a doubt that, of course, affects the image Miki made him wear.
Furthermore, while Yoshida seems to highlight the undefinable sparkle a girl has, the repetitive use of his pick-up line implies that the girl had never something special to begin with.
Narra-note 4: Let us also note that it is Miki that first sees the impact Yoshida’s enjoyment has on Chiwawa. In this way, she underlines for the spectator the narrative’s focus: her mental instability.
Sound-note 1: The narrative voice, the narrative voice of Miki, that introduces the spectator to the set-up of the narrative, also reveals Miki as the narrative’s true main character.
Narra-note 5: Miki also implicitly beliefs in the impossibility of establishing an inter-subjective bond beyond the sparkling superficiality of human interaction and the mediating place of enjoyment within those interactions.
When model Miki – modelling being the job of the imaginary par excellence, complains that true love, bright future, and money are unattainable, she reveals nothing but her disillusion with the social field.
The signifier of true love is of course most direct in highlighting the disillusion concerning the establishment of an inter-subjective bond.
Cine-note 1: The use of actual came footage also support the documenting feeling that persists throughout the narrative’s framing.
Cine-note 2: There are many rest moments in the narrative – rest-moments are generally framed with (shaky or fluid) semi-fixity. These subdued rest moments are important to the narrative’s development as they provide the necessary narrative anchors to situate the more violent visual outbursts, the more visual concatenations.
Narra-note 6: Miki’s search for information about Chiwawa also reveals how little each knew about each other. The emptiness that was covered over by enjoyment finds here its echo.
Narra-note 7: It is also through this kind of emphasis that the conflictual divide between the reality of youth and the theorizing by the non-youth – the spewing of their ideas on what wrong in contemporary culture – is able to find its expression.
Psycho-note 1: One might even posit that, for Yoshida, each girl is an object to enjoy (himself). A beautiful concatenation of girl feeding his ego.
Psycho-note 2: Jealousy can here be understood as an emotion including hate. If Miki is jealous, is it because she hates Chiwawa for becoming the agalmatic object that she wanted to become.
Psycho-note 3: One could even say that the incessant question for proof of Sakata’s love aims to cover over her subjective emptiness. Or, in other words, she tries to use the fleeting proof of love, a proof impossible to give, as a tool to fill her subjective division/lack.