Daughters (2020) review [Japannual 2020]

Introduction

With Daughters (2020), director and writer Hajime Tsuda present his first feature film to Japan and the world. His debut, in fact, did not go unnoticed at this year’s Japannual, winning the much-coveted Audience Award.  

Japannual

Review

Koharu (Ayaka Miyoshi) and Ayano (Junko Abe), two long-standing friends in their mid-twenties, are satisfied with the very way they are living their life. They enjoy living together, have a fulfilling and rewarding job, and enjoy going out together. But this peaceful equilibrium is broken for Ayano when she finds out that she is pregnant. But even so Ayano, despite not wanting to marry the supposed father, wants to keep the child.

Daughters (2020) by Hajime Tsuda

Daughters is a slice-of-life narrative that offers a gentle exploration of the impact that an unexpected event, i.e. a pregnancy, can have on a relation between friends as well as how a woman, who chooses to become a single mother – something that is still uncommon in Japan, tries to organize her current life around her pregnancy and how she prepares for her future life with the child.  

Ayano’s choice to keep the pregnancy hidden from everyone, including the supposed father, forces Ayano to give Koharu the role of ‘expecting father’ (e.g. going together to check-ups, … etc.). It is, as a matter of fact, because this role, this supportive role that makes Koharu partner of the pregnancy, is forced upon her that their relation is put under strain.

Daughters (2020) by Hajime Tsuda

Koharu can, nevertheless, speak from another position to Ayano than the position that is being forced upon her – she is, in fact, caught between two positions. While some might call her voice the voice of reason (“Having it is not realistic (…) No husband or parents nearby. (…) Can you keep your job?), Koharu’s voice, while touching upon some things that do need to be considered, erases Ayano’s subjective choice and is infested by the very ideals and expectations surrounding childbirth of the Japanese Other (Narra-note 2). Koharu is only able to accept the pregnancy of her friend as well as the imaginary position of ‘expecting father’ after she heard the embryo’s heart beating. The acceptance of her role is highlighted not only in the very act of buying a baby-book, but also which book she bought: “A Rookie Dads Guide To Pregnancy and Birth” (Narra-note 1). But while Koharu can play this role for a while, she is not able to nor does not desires to fill the hole of the father in the real as in the symbolic. How will she react when she comes to realize that Ayano has no intention to tell the supposed father of his real fatherhood and wants to keep the hole of the father an empty space for her child?

While ‘true’ fixed shots and fluid moving shots are present in Tsuda’s composition, his composition stands out due to the use of shaky framing – mixing shaky fixed shots together with shaky dynamic shots (Cine-note 1). The reliance on shaky framing ensures that the narrative of Ayano and Koharu becomes marked by certain realism/naturalism. While the shaky framing heightens the naturalism of Daughters, this cinematographic element is not the most important element to give the narrative its realism. The most important element is – and this should not be surprising – the performances as such. That Daughters feels authentic is thus, first and foremost, due to the natural performances of Junko Abe and Ayaka Miyoshi.

Daughters (2020) by Hajime Tsuda

But Tsuda does not only aim to give his narrative a certain realism or naturalism. By sporadically using more decorative elements, like slow-motion and so on, as well as atmospheric music he goes beyond the realism to evoke and communicate Ayano’s subjective state. Such decorative elements are, for instance, used to highlight the disruptive impact this unexpected pregnancy has on Ayano.

But the reliance on shaky framing, a cinematographic aspect heightening the naturalism of the narrative, is not the only defining character of Tsuda’s composition. His composition also stands out due to its energy and its flow. Tsuda has, by thoughtfully playing with the cut, the jump-cut, the movement of the camera, and musical accompaniment, crafted a composition that has a pleasing and enticing rhythm for the spectator. What further heightens the visual pleasure of the composition is the pleasing colour-design.

Daughters (2020) by Hajime Tsuda

Hajime Tsuda’s Daughters is a great narrative. With his simple, gentle, and authentic exploration of how a pregnancy rewrites one’s current and future life, Tsuda proves that one does not need a complex narrative or a profound thematic depth to touch the spectator. And given the traditional ideas and ideals that persist in the Japanese Other, Tsuda’s narrative might very well play an important role in ‘decriminalizing’ the notion of conscious single motherhood.

Notes

Narra-note 1: That Ayano starts crying after being confronted with the book has to do with the fact that Ayano did not consciously aimed to put Koharu in the position of ‘expecting father’ but unconsciously. One could say that Koharu, by fulfilling her subconscious wish, confronted her with the wish for a father for the child as such.

Narra-note 2: Later in the narrative, Ayano’s father will echo this Japanese Other once again, while Ayano’s grandmother puts the choice of Ayano above all else.  

Cine-note 1: Fluid moving shots are generally spatial moving shots, while shaky moving shots are generally following in nature.

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