To The North (2020) review [JFFH 2020]

Introduction

Bruce Nachbar, a veteran Hollywood producer – his credits include Free State of Jones 2016, the tv series Party of Five (1994-2000), and Monsters, Inc. (2001) – present With To The North (2020) nothing other than his debut-film as director. With only 15 days and a budget of around 7 million yen, he set out to prove that one can make a quality movie with a budget that is common for Japanese productions.   

Review

Ken (Yuya Fujita) and Sho (Ibuki Shimizu) are two Japanese friends who are living a rather humdrum life. One day, at a convenience store, Sho confronts Ken with the meaningless of their pedestrian life. Even though Ken tries to counter Sho’s statement by saying that all would be better if he found a steady job to buy manga and chuhai, Sho succeeds in convincing Ken that they need to do something out of the ordinary.    

Later that day, at the bar, they start brainstorming about what they can possibly do. They ultimately settle for doing a road trip (to find Ken’s Ono no Komachi), but they quickly realize that neither has a car or a driver’s license. Luckily, the bartender introduces them a driver (Masateru Otogi), and Ken’s elder sister provides them with a car, a pink VW bus lookalike with eyelashes and a tiara.  

To The North (2020) by Bruce Nachbar

To The North is as much a road trip movie as it is a movie about coming-into-being-as-subject. While each character has a conscious reason for undertaking the trip, they have, for various reasons, not able to pursue their desire or uncover what they actually desire.   

Sho’s reason for going on the road-trip is, as he repeats repeatedly, to pick up Northern girls. His desire for booty is, in truth, a way to temporary escape his unsatisfactory existence and to forget the position of failure he has identified himself with. That Sho is deeply insecure about his own phallic worth and that he, with respect to the female sex, feels castrated is sensibly underlined by his need to repeat his wish to pick up Northern girls (Narra-note 1).   

Ken’s reason to join the trip concerns the possibility of finding his long-lost Ono no Komachi (Culture-note 1). One should, in fact, not be duped by Ken’s initial reaction to the idea of doing this road trip. Even though he underlines how ridiculous it is, his non-verbal cues (and his later comportment) betray that it is precisely the possibility of encountering his Komachi that convinces him to undertake the road trip together with his friend. Ken wants, in truth, nothing other than find the girl that ten years ago, in a moment of Iki, became the object-goal of his desire.

To The North (2020) by Bruce Nachbar

Via Ken and Sho, Nachbar succeeds in touching upon the widespread problem of shyness among young Japanese men in relation to the other sex. The sexuality of woman, as is revealed in To The North, is something that attracts, but also something that, at the same time, threatens male subjects. The narrative beautifully shows that the feelings of shyness young men (might) have in relation to the other sex originate from the perverting effect sexual desire has on the male gaze, from the very eroticism – an imaginary eroticism function of the looking subject as such – that comes to mark their act of looking.

Toshiyuki, the introvert driver, travels with a bowling bag – his reason for driving north is obviously related to this bag. That the bowling bag is very important to him is not only made apparent by the fact that he takes great care of the bag, but also because he sleeps with it and takes it with him wherever he goes. Nachbar’s narrative expertly keeps the mystery of the contents of the bowling bag – via speech and visual references – sensible throughout the narrative. In fact, it is precisely because the mystery is successfully kept lingering in the narrative that the ultimate reveal turns out to be so moving and satisfying.  

To The North (2020) by Bruce Nachbar

Eventually the trio are joined by a mysterious girl, Miki (Misao). While she, initially, had no plans to travel with the trio for the entire trip, the sudden appearance of her possessive and violent husband compels her to accept the trio’s invitation to stay with them. Her outgoing presence, without spoiling too much, will radically impact Sho and Ken (Narra-note 2).

What binds all the various characters together is the fact that each one of them is at a subjective standstill. They are either unable to move forward, unable to pursue their dreams, or not able to realize that the current life they are living is not the one they want to be living. Each one of them is in a different way a victim of societal beliefs they have been forced to accept and of societal expectations they are unable to fulfill. What the trip teaches each one of them is that the only way to live a life worth living is not by passively accepting the position of the victim, but by unchaining the limitations they think they are subjected to and write, as an active subject, their own life, a life driven by their own desires and dreams.

To The North’s composition mainly consists out of concatenation of static shots – subtle camera movement is only sparingly used. While some might say that the composition is plain, the simplicity of the composition is masterfully used to focus on and thus strengthen the emotions and expressions of the various characters. In other words, with his simple composition, Bruce Nachbar gives the field to his actors/actresses to breath life into the characters and, consequently, the narrative.

To The North (2020) by Bruce Nachbar

Even though, the actors and actresses are given the responsibility to vitalize the narrative from a cinematographical perspective, it does not necessarily mean they succeed in doing so. Luckily, in To The North they do. Not only does each performance have a certain naturalness, making each character (minor and major) believable and, even more importantly, relatable, but Yuya Fujita and Ibuki Shimizu also have a great chemistry on screen, engaging the spectator from start to finish in their quite personal adventure. The pitch-perfect performances are, in our view, the main reason why Sho and Ken’s road-trip is so enjoyable.     

Bruce Nachbar’s To the North delivers. Using the power of his actors and actresses, Nachbar has not only created a feel-good movie full of genuine emotions and satisfying romantic moments, but also succeeds in delivering an important message to (Japanese) young adults: Do not let your live be lived by others and society, but live your own life by chasing your dreams and by finding a subject (of the other sex) supportive of your subjective cause.    

Notes 

Narra-note 1: Even though Sho is focused on picking up girls, he starts getting, much to his surprise, calls from Miura-san (Shiino Fujita), the much older ballet-teacher who gave them the car. It is somewhat ironic that the guy who is talking about finding girls to temporary solve his own phallic insecurity suddenly finds himself, without any ‘romantic’ action of his part, in the center of a woman’s attention.

Narra-note 2: When Miki enquires about Sho and Ken’s sexual experiences, the answers she receives from both guys are lies – again, it is the non-verbal language that speaks the truth. They lie, not because they are afraid of saying the truth of their virginity, but because they are afraid to reveal how insecure they are about their phallic being and reveal how daunting the sexuality of the female subject is for them.

Culture note 1: Ono no Komachi is the name of a famous Waka poet, one of Rokkasen (i.e. the six best waka poets of the early Heian period). She was not only renowned for her exquisite poetry but also for unusual and mesmerizing beauty. It is due to her legendary beauty that Komachi is, up until this day, a synonym in Japanese for a woman who has a radiating beauty.

On a side note, the encounter Ken had with his Ono no Komachi in the past in not without a Freudian flavour.

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