This year was, as one can assume, a special year for indie filmmaker Hirobumi Watanabe. Not only did he have a surprisingly popular partial retrospective at this year’s online Udine Far East Film Festival, but he has, at the same festival, the world premiere of his latest film: I’m Really Good (2020). As we are fans of Watanabe’s work, we gladly take the opportunity to review his latest.
Watanabe’s latest I’m Really Good is, on the one hand, a departure from Watanabe’s previous narratives at first glance, as well as, on the other hand, a continuation of his cinema-philosophy. This narrative departs from his recent films because Watanabe chose not to put his fictionalized self on the center stage, but a fictionalized version of Riko Hisatsugu (Narra-note 1). Yet, despite this shift, the nature of his cinema remains the same. Just like his other narratives, Watanabe delivers a comedic slice-of-life narrative.
Nevertheless, due to this shift, Watanabe radically alters the emotional substance of his latest slice-of-life narrative. In this narrative, Watanabe does not attempt to emphasize life’s monotonous cyclicity like in his award-winning Cry (2019) or to question the role of cinema within one’s subjectivity like in Life Finds Its Way (2018), but he tries and, for that matter, succeeds in emphasize the very contrast between child’s unworried (mental) reality with the overarching societal reality, a reality as driven by worries. This contrast is made explicit in the very beginning when Riko’s morning ritual is juxtaposed with a political discussion with former prime minister Abe about the pension system and, later in the narrative, when Riko and Nanaka’s drawing is juxtaposed with another passionate discussion about the pension system. While she, being a child, has no interest whatsoever in what these politicians are discussing – she is just living her life, what they are discussing does, in fact, concern her future.
It is due to this contrast, this contrast that forms the backbone of the entire narrative, that I’m Really Good is able to become such a touching nostalgic narrative. As the political discussion keeps echoing in the spectator’s mind – a sort of back-ground noise one cannot erase, the concatenation of beautiful, heartwarming and playful interactions (e.g. the word-game they play, their conversations about food and school-lunches, … etc.) between Riko and Nanako (Nanaka Sudo) or between Riko and her brother Keita (Keita Hisatsugu)/her mother attain a touching but pleasing sadness. We, as spectator, feel a heartwarming pleasure by seeing the children’s innocence on display, while, at the same time, feeling, with a tinge of sadness, that such innocence is forever lost for us.
The composition of I’m Really Good stands out due to its fixity and simplicity. While Watanabe uses dynamic moments, for instance for the title sequence depicting Riko and her friends playing at the playground, the actual narrative, i.e. the depiction of one day in Riko’s life, is framed with temporally long static shots. If Watanabe, within the staging of this day, utilizes following shots, he does so primarily to emphasize Riko’s movement within the local environment.
The comedy in I’m Really Good is not function of the conversations as such but of Watanabe’s exquisite play with repetition, one visual repetition (i.e. the scene where Riko tries to return Nanako’s textbook) as well as one narrative repetition (i.e. the repeated attempt of Jingui Kamekichi (Hirobumi Watanabe) to swindle children into buying textbooks). That these two moments in the narrative are so hilarious is due to the fact that Watanabe’s use of repetition emphasizes the divide between the innocence of children and, what one could call, the adult world (Narra-note 2).
The nostalgic feeling of the narrative, while grounded in the contrast between the pension-discussion and the unworried life of these children, is furthermore strengthened by the classical musical accompaniment as well as by the natural and heartwarming performances of the children (Colour-note 1).
I’m really Fine is another amazing narrative by Hirobumi Watanabe. While this heartwarming and at times hilarious comical slice-of-life narrative might not test the limits of the cinematographical device like some of his previous films, his latest excels in generating a subtle nostalgic emotionality. By using a simple narrative contrast, Watanabe succeeds in celebrating the innocence of children as well as confronting us with the childish reality we have sadly lost forever.
Narra-note 1: Hirobumi Watanabe is, nevertheless, present in the narrative, but not as a fictionalized version of himself but as Jingui Kamekichi, a swindling bookseller for the Genius Kids Science Publishing Company. This aspect confirms in the clearest way that this narrative, while grounded in the reality of these elementary school students, is indeed fictional.
Narra-note 2: While the divide between the innocence of children and the ‘adult’ world is explicit in the swindling sequence, this divide is only implicit in Riko’s walking sequence. The divide is nevertheless in this sequence by the very fact that Riko does not mind going twice to her friend’s house, something adults would, of course, mind.
Coulour-note 1: The narrative is, with one sole exception at the beginning – i.e. the opening scene shot with a mobile phone, completely shot in monochrome colours.