Astral Abnormal Suzuki-san (2019) review [Camera Japan Festival]

Introduction

Even though Daisuke Ono won the grand prix, the award for best actor as well the award for best actress with his comedy Urufu na shishi at the 2017 Tama Cinema Forum festival, not many fans of Japanese cinema will have heard about this young director. His new cinematographical project, Astral abnormal Suzuki-san, started – somewhat unconventionally – on YouTube as a series of 17 short stories. But now Daisuke Ono present his series of short stories into one cinematographical product.

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Review

One day, Rara Suzuki (Honoka Matsumoto), a youtuber living in the countryside, attracts the interest of a reality TV show director (Kotoha Hiroyama), who is interested to feature Rara in her project about youth in rural areas.

In preparation for the shoot, Rara forces her brother (Taketo Tanaka) and mother Kumiko (Mayuko Nishiyama) to follow the character backgrounds she wrote for them. Meanwhile, the higher ups want to stop Rara Suzuki’s appearance of television, due to her familial history. The director, having her own plans for her show, heads to the town anyway.

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One can easily feel that Astral Abnormal Suzuki-san was originally a series of youtube skits. This is not only sensible in the thinness of the plot, but also in the less fluid structure that underpins the narrative’s unfolding. Yet, despite this elements of critique, the narrative works well as a quirky slice-of-life narrative. One should even congratulate Daisuke Ono, as he succeeded in crafting an interesting narrative around this emotionally unstable and difficult-to-like girl. Furthermore, Ono succeeds in making the charming narrative’s conclusion satisfying. While this conclusion does not aim to evoke hilarity, it does aim to conclude Rara’s narrative by framing a moment, a touching hysterical moment, that leads to a radical subjective change.

While Rara is obviously odd, one can say the same about her familial context. This is evident by the fact that no one in the in her dysfunctional but functioning familial context forces her to abide to certain rules of courtesy, rules she quite often ignores. This absence does not only point to the lack of a ‘functional’ father, but also to the fact that Rara’s mother in such absence is unable to realize such function for her. While Rara’s mother is patient and, in her particular way, caring, the distance she keeps with respect to her daughter allows Rara to embrace her subjective position, a position quite often at odds with societal expectations.

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While Rara’s oddness/eccentricity forms the main source for the narrative’s quirkiness, these quirky moments only work because they are function of the narrative’s exploration of Rara’s subjectivity – a subjectivity marked by hysterical outbursts and emotionless irony (Comedy-note 1). Astral-Abnormal Suzuki-san is thus, first and foremost, a subjective-driven satirical slice-of-life narrative. It is therefore frustrating to realize that the narrative is held back by its original you-tube format, that this original format problematized the creation of narrative depth that would have made Astral Abnormal Suzuki-san so much more satisfying.

As Daisuke Ono’s focus is subjectivity – subjectivity as vehicle for lightheartedness, it should not come as a surprise that the main plot-element eventually deals with conflict and rivalry. As evoked early on in the narrative – by way of the often repeated darts-scene – this conflict concerns her twin-sister Riri (Honoka Matsumoto), who realized Rara’s show-biz dream (Narra-note 1, narra-note 2). This conflict receives the possibility for a showdown when a pregnant Riri returns home to introduce her fiance.

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One interesting question that the narrative poses is how Rara’s oddness, an oddness subtly grounded in her familial history, is entwined with her desire to become youtuber, her desire to expose herself on the internet. In other words, what is, given her subjective position, her subjective aim as a youtuber. While one can easily sense, as the narrative unfolds, that the act of becoming a youtuber is related to her childhood dream, a dream concerning the social position she wanted to attain, it is only in the narrative’s finale that something of an answer is formulated to the question of the link between her oddness and her position as youtuber. Without spoiling too much, we can reveal that her oddness forms a symptomatic response to her more successful twin-sister.

The cinematography of Astral-Abnormal Suzuki-san, beyond favouring fixity over movement, is noteworthy for its compositional simplicity (Cine-note 1). As cuts within scenes are kept to a minimum and camera angles remain generally fixed, the resulting temporally long shots come to emphasize the character’s speech and acts as they happen within the narrative space. The unfolding of the narrative is supported by short moments of musical accompaniment – musical accompaniment generally acoustic in nature. These musical moments are applied in order to aid scene-transitions as such or to musically underline the start of a new scene.

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The biggest highlight of Astral Abnormal Suzuki-san is Honoka Matsumoto’s performance. Not only does Matsumoto bring Rara’s quirkiness and mood-swings – from emotionless to full hysterical mode – believably to the fore, she also infuses enough difference in her performance as Riri, so that the spectator can suspend the knowledge that both characters are played by one and the same actress.

For those who expect Astral abnormal Suzuki-san to be a typical Japanese comedy narrative will be surprised or disappointed to find a more atypical subject-driven satirical slice-of-life narrative. While it is admirable that Daisuke Ono attempted to craft a narrative around an emotionally unstable subject – an emotionless subject that can turn hysterical in an instant, this project would have fared better if Daisuke Ono would have explored Rara’s subjectivity in a more structured and deeper way.

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Notes

Comedy-note 1: While this quirkiness forms the main source for lightheartedness, the narrative also incorporates some subtle visual comedic elements. 

Narra-note 1: The beginning of the conflict – the subjective impact of the clash between Riri’s audition success and Rara’s audition failure, is framed through flashbacks.

Narra-note 2: It will become clear that Riri played a major role in the failure of Rara to appear on television. The scene where this element is revealed uncovers Riri’s embarrassment over her familial situation, a situation she broke with when she moved to Tokyo, and her wish to hide her quirky sister.

Cine-note 1: While the cinematography favours fixity, there are still some moving shots and following shots to be noted in the narrative.

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