Woman of the Photographs (2020) review [Fantasia 2020]

Introduction

Takeshi Kushida’s debut feature film, Woman of The Photographs, has already proven to be an award-winning narrative, securing various awards at various smaller international film festivals. Now, his debut narrative receives its chance to shine at the biggest film festival of Canada.

Fantasia 2020 Official Selection

Review

Besides doing portrait photography, solitary middle-aged photographer Kai (Hideki Nagai) also offers retouching services. While most of his clientele is female – asking to take and retouch their pictures for matchmaking parties, Kai feels more secure around insects than around the less predictable animal called woman.  

One day, while searching for insects to photograph, he encounters, much to his surprise, a woman hanging in a tree. While Kai is unable to utter a word to Kyoko (Itsuki Otaki), he nevertheless decides, after she has climbed down the tree, to follow her. The same evening, back at his studio, Kyoko asks him to erase the injury in one of the photographs for her social media profile. While, at first, she only asks Kai to erase her injury, she starts, after seeing of one of her influencer contracts terminated, to ask him to ‘fix’ her whole body.

Woman of the Photographs (2020) by Takeshi Kushida

Woman of the Photographs offers a vivid exploration of the imaginary preoccupation many contemporary subjects – female as well as male – have with their own body-image and the impact of the Other on this highly problematic preoccupation. In the case of Sajio (Toki Koinuma) who needs a picture for a matchmaking party, the directions she gives Kai during retouching are not in function of her subjective ideal as such, but in function of the ideals she perceives in the Other – the fundamental question guiding her is ‘What does the Other find attractive, what does he desire?’ (Psycho-note 1). She feels the need to beautify herself for the Other so that, at least, one male other would find her sexually attractive (Narra-note 1 (spoiler)).  

The same can be said for Kyoko, but, in her case, her demand to beautify herself, i.e. erase her injuries, is not directly targeted at the male Other, but at the Other of social media. She feels forced to subject herself to the bodily ideals of the Other because she wants to participate in the superficial imaginary dynamic of showing (off) and being seen (and enjoyed) that structures social media and defines the position of influencer (Psycho-note 2).

The somewhat painful evocation of the need to beautify oneself unearths the fundamental characteristic of the imaginary, that of the lure. The end-goal of any visual manipulation of one’s body-image in accordance with the ideals of beauty residing in the Other is in order to lure/deceive that Other. The game of romance, for instance, is at the level of the imaginary nothing but a deceitful skirmish to seize the sexual desire of the male subject with the ‘brilliance’ of the (manipulated) body-image (Psycho-note 3).         

Woman of the Photographs (2020) by Takeshi Kushida

Why did Kai follow Kyoko? One should not search it too far. If he followed her, it is because something of her image as perceived by him touched him, because something of her image – her elegant body movement – captured his subjective desire. The agalmatic object-goal of desire he encounters in her reinforces, by engendering his anxiety, his inability to speak and assert himself as desiring subject. He fails to utter demands – demands for love – and fails to respond to (Kyoko’s) questions. Even though he desires Kyoko, he also wants to escape her, escape the imagined threat she as woman constitutes for him, by erasing himself as subject from the dimension of speech. In other words, Kai shelters his subject (and desire) in order not to be devoured by Kyoko, a praying mantis he cannot control.

Having revealed Kyoko and Kai’s subjective position, we can now introduce the fundamental questions that structure Kushida’s narrative: Can Kai go beyond his imaginary idea of woman as threat and pass through his anxiety to give expression, via speech or/and via an act, to his subjective desire? Can Kyoko accept the imperfections of her body and abandon the need to retouch her pictures (Psycho-note 4)? The latter question can also be formulated in a different way: can the Other of social media play a role in allowing Kyoko to (perversely) enjoy her bodily state as it is in its current state?

While offers, for the greater part, an ordinary composition – a mix of static moments and temperate dynamic moments, Woman of The Photographs also features more creative compositional excursions. These moments deviate from the ordinary composition by using more ‘extra-ordinary’ techniques at the level of lighting, e.g. by using a spotlight, or at the level of the cinematography, e.g. by using an extreme close-up. What makes these excursions really pleasing is that they are not only used to infuse some lightheartedness into the narrative, but also applied to evoke meaning – i.e. evoke Kyoko’s obsession with social media fame. In fact, with these excursions, Akeshi Kushida shows that he fully understands the linguistic nature of the composition of the cinematic image.

Woman of the Photographs (2020) by Takeshi Kushida

The technical dimension that stands out the most is the sound design courtesy of Masahiro Yui. The sound design of Woman of The Photographs is exquisite not only because the sounds (e.g. the sound of lighting and sucking a cigarette, of opening and closing of the door, of footsteps, of a bicycle riding, of speech, … etc.) are crystal-clear, but are also effective in giving the on-screen comportment a certain physicality and setting the atmospheric tone of the narrative.

Woman of the Photographs is an amazing narrative because Kushida succeeds in narratively exploring and cinematographically visualizing how the Other perverts the way we deal at the level of the imaginary with our own bodily being as well as how fragile the ego becomes when the subject, who desperately seeks to be desired, submits himself to the ideals of the Other. We truly hope that Kushida’s beautifully constructed narrative will work as a powerful reminder that what truly counts is not the relation to the imagined Other, an Other who might or not desire the subject, but a relation to another subject.   

Notes

Psycho-note 1: While we have made a distinction between ideals of the subject and the ideals of the Other, we should nevertheless state that the ideals subjects have concerning female beauty are structured by the ideals of the societal Other.

We made this radical distinction in other to highlight that the emphasis in Kushida’s narrative does not lie on the ideals that woman, as subjects, have, but on the pressure female subjects feel to abide to the discourse of beauty of the Other they, as subject, are subjected to.

Narra-note 1: The pressure that compels Sajio to obtain the ideal of female beauty of the Other goes so far that she, ultimately, forces Kai to turn her into a veritable caricature.

Psycho-note 2: The ability to gauge how much one has been enjoyed, e.g. through the number of likes one has garnered, plays a central role in subject’s ability to enjoy the act of showing (off). The importance of enjoyment, in fact, shows that the true motor of the imaginary dynamic is the subject’s scopic drive.  

Psycho-note 3: Sajio also underlines that the need to retouch herself in pictures is not only born from a desire to deceive the Other, but also from a desire to deceive herself. Only by successfully making a male other desire her retouched image can she desire herself as being that retouched image. She desires, in other words, the male other as a mirror reflecting her own carefully retouched visual lie back to her.

But Sajio, so pre-occupied with (the power) of imaginary, fails to realize that the dimension of love lies beyond the image. Love does not lie in the imaginary but in the symbolic, at the level of inter-subjectivity. She also mistakenly believes that the mirroring aspect of the imaginary will help her attain happiness, but no true happiness can be found in the imaginary.   

Psycho-note 4: The latter part of the question can also be formulated in a different way: Can Kyoko escape the circuit of scopic satisfaction underpinning the imaginary dynamic of sharing pictures on social media? (meet Kai as subject, find some form of pleasure in inter-subjective love)

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