Another year, another love-story from Akiko Ohku. While, in 2017, she approached romance in the life of a woman in her 20’s (Tremble all you want (2017)) and, with Marriage Hunting Beauty (2018), love in the life of a woman in her 30’s, her latest narrative concerns the blossoming of romance in the life of a single woman in her 40’s.
Based on the book ‘Gargling with sweet liquor’ written by Jiro (Sissone) as Yoshiko Kawashima, Ohku brings one year and 5 months of Yoshiko’s diary to life on the silver screen (General-note 1).
While 40 year old Yoshiko (Yasuko Matsuyuki) has found an enjoyable way of living by herself, certain encounters in her daily life nevertheless point towards those things (e.g. motherhood, marriage) she misses.
One day, when Yoshiko and Wakabayashi enter a soba-restaurant for lunch, Wakabayashi (Haru Kuroki) accidentally encounters Okamoto (Hiroya Shimizu), who was her junior in college. Yoshiko, who recognizes him as the guy who bowed to her the other day, immediately takes a linking to him.
While My Sweet Grappa Remedies eventually turns into romance narrative, it remains, first and foremost, a peaceful slice of life narrative, a peaceful exploration of Yoshiko’s subjectivity. This subjectivity is presented by revealing how Yoshiko cherishes the small things in life as well as by underlining that fact that Yoshiko’s interactions as well as her commentaries turn around a lack and an unconscious desire. This desire and the lack that underlies it are function of the tension that exists between her (actual) position of being unmarried and the position deemed desirable by Japanese society – the position of wife/mother (Narra-note 1). Lacan’s statement ‘the desire of man is the desire of the Other’ finds it expression here.
This subjective tension is already evoked early on in the narrative when Yoshiko asks herself if the people who see her, see the same woman as she does when seeing herself in the mirror. While both, she and the others, are marked by the Other they support, the relation to her own image can never be the same as the way the other perceives her. Nevertheless, as Yoshiko moves around in the societal Other, her interactions with others and the Other impact the way she perceives herself. The dimension of motherhood, for instance, is touched upon through her interaction with a kid in the supermarket. As she has yet to express her desire to become a mother, one can only understand her interaction with the kid as an interaction with the (desirable) images the societal Other conditions for a forty-year old woman. Her womanhood is brought into play by being ignored by a tissue-dealer. This tissue-dealer comes to act as the Japanese Other who deems a lack of youthfulness less attractive.
At one moment, Yoshiko’s gives subtle expression to her unconscious desire to form a family and, thus, to follow the desirable images the Other conditions. Her desire finds expression in her act of remembering – for some reason – the day when she started seriously started dating a man for the first time. The ease by which she falls in love can be understood as such an expression as well.
Despite her feelings for Okamoto, there is a mental barrier that keeps her from accepting him into her peaceful life, a life that’s nevertheless marked by the lack and desire mentioned above. Needless to say, this barrier is related, as is implied in the narrative, to how she perceives herself as woman in light of a (younger) man. Only a change in that image, only a re-evaluation of her body-image, will allow her to open herself for dating with him (Narra-note 2, Narra-note 3).
What’s most remarkable about the cinematography of My Sweet Grappa Remedies is the subtle use of the jump-cut (Cine-note 1). Beyond manipulating filmic-time as such, this technique is quite often applied to highlight certain elements of Yoshiko‘s daily routine (Cine-note 2). Another technique Ohku applies in the framing of Yoshiko’s narrative concerns visual repetition, a repeated emphasis on certain behaviours, like Yoshiko’s patting of her bicycle seat before as well as after riding it – a behavior expressing her affectionate bond with her bicycle – and the rhythm by which she drinks alcohol. This kind of visual repetition, together with the application of the jump-cut, successfully enables the spectator to grasp some of Yoshiko’s daily routine. After the establishment of some aspect of her routine, the technique of the jump-cut is reduced to its ordinary function of visualizing jumps in time and the visual repetition of behaviors, as integrated in the ebb and the flow of Yoshiki’s life, loses its emphasizing power.
The unfolding of the narrative is guided by Yoshiko’s subjective narrative voice. As her narration concerns her own diary, the structure of the narrative is, generally speaking, the concatenation of those moments she wrote about in her dairy. This kind of narration, here applied in a delightful natural manner, gives the spectator an insight in Yoshiko’s subjective position within Japanese society and enables the spectator to sympathize, albeit on an imaginary level, with her subjective trajectory (of falling in love and desiring a family).
The framing of My Sweet Grappa Remedies is also marked by a subtle tremble. So even though the narrative is subjective – a slice-of-life story, the cinematographic tremble that frames those moments important to Yoshiko’s subject gives a certain realism to the unfolding of her trajectory. As a result, Yoshiko’s trajectory, the things she experiences, and the emotions she feels along the way become really sensible for the spectator.
The realism of the frame also grounds most moments of comedy in the realism of every-day life. Due to this aspect of realism, these funny moments feel like natural consequences of how Yoshiko interacts with her environment. This kind of funniness is thus not function of any cinematographical quirkiness but function of the interactions between characters (Yoshiko and others) or the less than surprising consequences of her actions as such. Other moments of lightheartedness, moments that are generally in function of other characters (i.e. Wakabayashi), are, despite the realism of the frame, staged with more quirky decorations like zoom-in and slow-motion (Music-note 1).
My Sweet Grappa Remedies is able to become so pleasing due to natural performances of each actor. It is only through this naturalism – a naturalism empowered by the cinematographic tremble – that the various emotions our characters feel are able to become so sensible for the spectator. It is also due to Haru Kuroki’s nuanced performance that the more comedic moments never feel out of place.
My Sweet Grappa Remedies is, when all is said and done, a peaceful and serene exploration of female subjectivity. What makes this narrative so heartwarming (and for some really relatable) is the very externalization of thoughts/diary-entries that structures the narrative. Beyond been given an insight in her life-style as such, we are allowed to hear her thoughts and feel her doubts and fears. Moreover – and this is the most wonderful part of the narrative, we are able to hear Yoshiko’s desire, a desire not yet assumed, speaking and subtly guiding her in her subjective trajectory.
General-note 1: Jiro also wrote the screenplay.
Narra-note 1: One of the most subtle expressions of this tension is found in the scene where Yoshiko receives her double-sized mattress. While it is never made explicit, the pleased gazes of the bystanders translate their (wrong) interpretation of Yoshiki’s need for such mattress as being born from her current romantic situation.
Narra-note 2: Wakabayashi plays a very important role in coupling Yoshiko with Okamoto.
Narra-note 3: Even though she starts her relationship, doubts how to position herself within this relationship remain. The dairy-narration works wonderfully in bringing this doubt in a sensible way to the fore.
Cine-note 1: The cinematography consists of a mix fixed shots, subtle spatial moving shots and following shots. In one instance, pov-like shots are used as well.
Cine-note 2: The jump-cut is often used in combination with the close-up.
Cine-note 3: This is further emphasized by the use of titles indicating which day it is. This titles are often joined by drawings that visualize what kind of weather it was that day.
Music-note 1: In some cases, the lightheartedness is also underlined by way of musical accompaniment.
Sound-note 1: Lighthearted moments are sometimes supported by comedic sounds.