Two years after his widely successful River’s Edge (2018), Isao Yukisada is back, not with one, but with two narratives, an adaptation of Setona Mizushiro’s Yaoi manga The Cornered Mouse Dreams of Cheese (2006) and an adaption of Naoki Matayoshi’s novel, Theatre (2017). This time, we review his version of Naoki Matayoshi’s novel, Theatre: A Love Story.
One day, Nagata (Kento Yamazaki), playwright for the Oroka theatre troupe, encounters, while staring at an artwork in an art gallery in Shibuya, a girl named Saki (Mayu Matsuoka). He decides, for some obscure reason, to follow her. Saki, feeling uneasy, tries to escape from this weird looking guy, but ultimately fails. He introduces himself by stating that their shoes are the same, which she denies, and asks her out. Even though Saki refuses, he insists. Sometime later, he asks her to star in his new play.
While Theatre: A Love Story might seem a romance narrative at first glance, those who qualify Yukisada’s latest as a romance narrative ultimately miss the point of the film. Theatre: A Love Story does not deal with desire nor with love in a direct sense. It delivers a dramatic character study of Nagata by exploring his problematic relationship with Saki, theatre, and the Other.
To be able to understand this narrative – which is a bit of a challenge, one needs to analyze the dynamics that underpin Nagata’s presence in the social field. Nagata is introduced as a rather awkward guy; he has an awkward presence within the social space. Nagata’s presence – and this might sound somewhat abstract – is marked by an alternation between making himself present and hiding himself, of looking for the other’s gaze and hiding his own gaze from this other (Narra-note 1). It is this shy presence that turns the way that he approaches Saki, a way that does not really violate the social rules of the game of romancing, into such an estranging and uneasy event for Saki.
Why causes his awkward presence in the social field? In our view, it is caused by the weight of the Other that he feels on his shoulders. From his current subjective position, he cannot encounter the Other, the Other that appears in front of him as Saki, in a truly honest way. When Nagata confesses to the spectator that theatre is the source of all his misery, he is, in fact, wrong. The true source of his subjective misery and anxiety is his (relation with his) Other.
Nagata, as is revealed in the narrative, is also unable to meet his actors, when they reflect his own imaginary division back to him, as Other. He evades the subjective confrontation with this Other – the Other represented by his actors, by attacking his most vocal actress, Aoyama (Sairi Ito), in the imaginary field – i.e. he attacks her appearance. Nagata can only protect his frail ego from this Other, by attacking the representative of this Other in an inherently violent imaginary mirror-palace.
Nagata’s relationship with Saki changes some things for Nagata – e.g. after casting her in a play he could only write by meeting her, the reputation of his small troupe improves, Nagata’s problematic relation to the Other remains largely unchanged (e.g. he keeps shyly evading the gaze of unknown others). Receiving some recognition from this Other did not diminish the weight of his Other on his shoulders and silence his sense of inferiority.
Nagata remains prone to lashing out to the Other or the person acting as its representative. This element underlines that, beyond the changes in his presence around Saki, Nagata’s ego remains frail and unable to endure any kind of imaginary injury. But is it truly the imaginary injury that he cannot endure? In our view, what the subsequent outbursts reveal is that Nagata is unable to show his very subjective division to the Other. Whenever the other, via speech, approaches this division, he lashes out at the level of the imaginary to silence this subjective division. The Other remains problematic for Nagata because it is the prime place where his painful subjective truth (i.e. his own inferiority and his own division) can readily appear.
Saki’s laugh is, in this respect, the prime element that allows Nagata to suppress and avoid the confrontation with his own subjective division. In other words, her laugh protects him, albeit only temporarily, from his own troubled state of mind. It is therefore not surprising that what compelled him to follow her was her smile.
Theatre: A Love Story is full of heartwarming romantic moments, painful moments of interpersonal conflict and moments of tension. While the heartwarming moments are always function of Saki’s laugh, the two other ones are function of Nagata’s evasion to deal with his own subjective division and, as a result, an inability to accept Saki’s subjectivity or Otherness.
Theatre: A Love Story also has a satisfying finale, but the true highlight of the film is a very powerful sequence that inaugurates this finale, i.e. the bicycle scene where Nagata and Saki ride home. As can be expected, this sequence coincides with a change in Nagata: for the first time he succeeds in addressing Saki from the level of his subject, allowing her a glimpse of the division that marks him as subject.
What Yukisada succeeds in showing with his character-study is not how the troubled state of a subject can problematize one’s romantic endeavours, but how the inability of a subject to show his troubled state to his beloved other ultimately sabotages any possibility of a relationship to accede to a true intersubjective romance and ravages the other at the level of his subjectivity.
The composition of Theatre: A Love Story, besides offering straightforward composed sequences, also delivers more documentary-styled framing, often to heighten the emotional fabric of a given moment or to accentuate the state of mind of Nagata during certain moments. The realistic colour/lightning design is also instrumental in strengthening the relational joys and the romantic drama of Nagata’s relation with Saki.
What stands out in Theatre: A Love Story is its use of the narrating voice, Nagata’s voice. It is, as a matter of fact, only through the contrast between Nagata’s narrating speech and his interactions with others that the spectator can truly understand Nagata’s division as subject. Moreover, this contrast highlights that Nagata’s true problem is nothing other than the fact that his inner dialogue remains unvocalized, that his inner dialogue never becomes a form of speech addressed to the Other/Saki. The fact that the conflict between that what is left unsaid and that what is said structures most of the narrative enables the finale to be so engaging and satisfying – a finale ‘satisfying’ the spectator by inducing in him/her a conflicting mixture of sadness and hopefulness (Narra-note 2 (spoiler)).
While those expecting a bittersweet romance will be sorely disappointed, those able to read Theatre: A Love Story as a character-study will find a painful but beautiful narrative about the difficulty to instigate subjective change and the impact such struggle has on relations. By showing the spectator that a relationship, where the Otherness of the other is unable to reveal itself, transforms into a ravage for both subjects, Yukisada succeeds in touching upon the necessity for the subject to find, within the social field, at the level of speech, a way to work through the subjective dynamic that problematizes his/her dealings with the other/Other.
Narra-note 1: Nagata’s attempt to make himself present and absent at the same time also leads him to look at Saki from the corner of his eye. This manner of looking, one could contend, finds a perfect middle ground between being present and being absent.
Narra-note 2: The importance of the end of Theatre: A Love Story should not be understated. This stage-play reveals, in a rather subtle way, the subjective transformation that Nagata underwent after Saki left. What is fundamental in this stage-play is that Nagata puts, for the first time, his own subjective voice and desire on stage – for the Other to hear, for Saki, the addressee, to hear. While Saki and Nagata’s romance may be forever lost, this tragedy ultimately allowed Nagata to confront, in his writing, his own troubled subjectivity and express that what he has always left unsaid, as fiction, to the Other, to Saki.