Daisuke Miyazaki, known from narratives like Yamato (California) (2016) and Tourism (2018), is back with a new narrative. Like in the former narrative, Videophobia once again focuses on the importance of finding a position within the social field.
After failing to become an actress in Tokyo, Ai Aoyama (Tomona Hirota [Kushina (2018)]) returns to her hometown in Osaka. She has nevertheless not given up on her dream to become an actress and continues to take acting classes. One night, after taking an acting class, Ai ends up in a club with her acting-friends. At the club, her eyes meet the eyes of a man (Shûgo Oshinari [Stare (2019)). He, obviously interested in her, invites her to dance. They eventually end up having sex at his apartment.
A few days later, Ai notices a video of her one-night-stand on a porn website. She goes to his apartment in order to confront him, but leaves with the feeling that he knows nothing about it. Upon checking the website again the next day, she finds newly uploaded videos of her and him. These videos, in contrast to the first, imply that a third party is in play.
Videophobia offers the spectator, first and foremost, a wonderful exploration of the objectifying tendencies of the act of looking. The objectifying tendency of the look is already evoked in the beginning of the narrative, when Ai – at first somewhat reluctant – accepts the invitation of her male spectator to masturbate in front of the camera. What Ai at the limit consents to is to being reduced to an object to be erotically enjoyed. She accepts, in other words, her position as object-for-enjoyment for the male look/regard.
Nevertheless, her consent is given within a relation established between her and her spectator, the male subject. But this relationship, a relationship turning around the pleasure of being seen and watching, is, in the end, but an imaginary relationship. At no point whatsoever – and this is very important – there is a subjective exchange between them. Ai’s interaction with the man she meets at the club should be understood in the same way. It is an imaginary exchange where Ai willingly reduces herself to an object to be sexually enjoyed. She offers her body, as an object to be sexually enjoyed, to this stranger. And while this objectal position provides her with pleasure, her willingness also prompts us to question if her act also serves another function.
While Videophobia features natural conversations between youths – conversations thriving on playful emotionality and subtle rivalry, one cannot remain blind to the fact that many social interactions or non-interactions are marked by an element of indifference. This indifference is, of course, most sensible in the character of Ai. It is not only noticeable in the lack of emotionality she generally displays but also by how often she remains silent within social contexts
It is through framing Ai’s indifference that Videophobia succeeds in sensibly confronting the spectator with a pressing contemporary social problem: the superficiality of social interactions among youth and the feeling of social disconnection such superficiality can cause. The feeling of disconnection, born from having failed to establish a true social position within the social field, puts the ‘desire’ of the subject into question. Ai’s indifference and her feeling of being disconnected from the other as subject urges the spectator (before questioning what she desires – to ask if there’s a desire that vitalizes her, a desire that would compel her to assume a true position within the social fabric (Narra-note 1)?
All the interactions Ai has with others are superficial, either because neither party is interested in each other as subject or because the relation revolves around submitting oneself as object-to-be-enjoyed to the desire of the other. The benefit of the latter – and the true function of Ai’s willingness to submit – is that submitting oneself to the (sexual) desire of the other gives her a temporary (and fantasmatical) position. By submitting her to the objectifying look, Ai can situate herself in the desire of the male other as the desired-object and please her desire to be desired.
And then she finds the videos that were taken without her consent, videos revealing her as she enjoys and is enjoyed. The aspect that appears to be most problematic for Ai is not the fact of the leaked videos as such, but the fact that the camera, the third invisible party in play, actively seeks to frame her enjoyment (Narra-note 2). Eventually, Ai comes to experience every camera/screen as an objectifying regard, a regard that confronts her with the truth of her sexually exploitation. The screens and camera’s give her a position within the social field, a position of exploited-object or of an object-to-be-exploited, but this object-position is, of course, impossible and unbearable. Reduced to merely an object, Ai becomes the plaything of the ravishing enjoyment of the objectifying Other – a paranoia induced by the proliferation of reflecting surfaces, camera eyes, and screens. Can Ai escape this undefinable Other (Narra-note 3 (spoiler))?
While each thematic aspect is sufficiently brought to the fore, there is one minor grip we have with Videophobia. The paranoiac dimension of the Other, so central to the narrative, is not cultivated enough by Miyazaki. If Miyazaki could have spent more time on cultivating this unescapable Other, residing in reflecting surfaces, screens, and camera-lenses, it would have made his narrative and its evocative finale even more powerful.
The cinematography of Videophobia offers a mix of static moments, moments of following movement and, in more rare instances, spatial movement. If cinematographical movement is applied, Miyazaki’s application is almost always in function of Ai – either movement follows her or movement finds, as it wanders through the narrative space, Ai as rest-point (Cine-note 1, Cine-note 2). This cinematographical choice has as benefit that it sharply delineates Ai as the main character for the spectator.
But this way of emphasizing with movement also causes the (often prolonged) static moments that focus on her (facial expressions) to become more meaningful. It is by way of this cinematographical interaction that Miyazaki forces the spectator to question what’s on Ai’s mind. He urges the spectator to ask the question, but leaves, until the very end of the narrative, the answer hanging. Ai’s subjectivity is thus, for the greater part of Videophobia, ungraspable for the spectator (Narra-note 4 (spoiler)). It is especially in the static moments that Tomona Hirota, who is ever a charming presence on the screen, makes her performance of Ai truly shine. Her performance, full of subtle expressions, but always devoid of real emotional expressiveness, sensibly communicates the indifference that marks her subjectivity.
After the videos have been leaked, shaky framing comes to mark the cinematographical composition. While subtle, this shakiness sensibly resonates the psychological impact of the videos and sensibly resonates that the videos, which leave her shaken, problematize her precarious position in the social field. The fact that the entire film is shot in monochrome colours emphasizes the bleakness of contemporary society and the disconnection that marks the social field. But this choice also heightens the aesthetic quality of the narrative, treating the spectator on some truly beautiful shots (Cine-note 3).
Videophobia is a return to form for Daisuke Miyazaki. Not only does his narrative, painted in beautiful monochrome colours, explore in a very precise manner the objectifying potential of the act of looking and the way in which such objectifying look, via technology and internet, can be exploited and turned into a paranoiac presence, it also touches upon the very superficiality that marks many of the social interactions nowadays. Miyazaki beautifully corroborates that the superficiality of social bonds and the aspect of pleasure that structures interactions is associated with identity problems, problems to establish a true social position. We duly recommended this narrative.
Narra-note 1: At the acting class, in one of the exercises, Ai sensibly illustrates that her indifference, also shines through in her acting. Ai’s inability to utilize the vitality of desire to enliven her performance leads the spectator once again to question the presence of a subjective desire.
Narra-note 2: The camera-movement in Ai’s porn videos is, in fact, impossible. The third party, as implied by the camera-movement, cannot have a real body. The dissociation of the objectifying look from real bodies has no other effect than making the objectifying look more potent and more intrusive.
Narra-note 3: One of the final shots of the narrative – i.e. Ai looking in the mirror, seems to imply that the objectifying Other, once installed in reflecting surfaces is, when all is said and done, untamable.
Cine-note 1: Club-scenes are, for that matter, framed in a different way. In these sequences, cinematographical movement – following as well as spatial, is randomly applied, in an attempt to underline the atmosphere as well as the dancing.
Cine-note 2: And it is also not uncommon for Miyazaki to use moving shots (and semi-fixed shots) in order to introduces the spatial context, e.g. Osaka’s Korean town, of the narrative.
Narra-note 4: What Ai has been seeking all along is already present in her name: love. She demands to be loved, to be desired as subject.
Cine-note 3: The real highlight of the narrative is, in our view, the sequence framing the self-help-group session. This is not so much due to the way this scene is framed, but due to its magnificent and powerful use of repetition of signifiers.