With Ito, Satoko Yokohama presents her fourth feature film and – as far as we can see – her second film closely linked to her home prefecture, Aomori. For her latest film, Yokohama choose to adapt Osamu Koshigaya’s novel ‘Itomichi’ (2011).
[Yokohama’s Ito is the winner of Grand Prix winner of the 16th edition of the Osaka Asian Film Festival and the winner of the audience award.]
Ito Soma (Ren Komai) has, due to her strong Tsugaru accent, been struggling to find a place for her subject within her social environment. She does not only avoid communicating with her peers at her high school in Hirosaki city, but also avoids playing the Tsugaru shamisen, a three-string instrument she is good at playing. One day, she decides on her own to start a part-time job at a maid café in Aomori city. Her father and widow Koichi (Etsushi Toyokawa), while concerned about his daughter, allows her to work at the café.
To understand the dynamic of Ito’s narrative, one needs to analyze Ito Soma’s initial position and explore the various changes that she undergoes throughout the narrative. While we are not going to reveal the endpoint of Ito’s subjective trajectory, we will provide a reading of her initial position and touch upon certain elements that play an important role within her trajectory.
Ito is, as is evident from the very beginning of the narrative, someone who does not entirely fit her social environment, someone who, due to her accent, is always in danger of being confronted with her own Otherness. It is due to ever looming confrontation with her own Otherness that Ito has developed an anxious reluctance to speak and put her subject and desire in the social field – i.e. her shyness. Whenever she speaks with her thick Tsugaru accent, Ito puts her Otherness on display. By not speaking she can ‘hide’ herself (as absence) within the sameness of her social environment. For the very same reason, she avoids interaction with others after school.
Ito’s refusal to practice the Shamisen with her grandmother is, in our view, also function of her desire to avoid the Otherness that marks her identity. This refusal echoes the conflict that marks her subject – a conflict about accepting her Otherness as being as essential part of who she, as subject, is. The moments that Ito does play her shamisen are also marked by this underlying subjective conflict – rather than playing her instrument when everybody can see and hear her, she plays the shamisen hidden from the others.
But the biggest effect that this subjective conflict has is that it hinders Ito in assuming the desire to play the shamisen as her own desire. The main question that fuels the narrative can thus be formulated as follows: Can she overcome this obstacle concerning her Otherness and fuel her talent to play the shamisen with a desire that is hers?
Why does Ito choose a maid-café as her part-time job? While the first motivation seems to be money – it pays good, her choice to become a waitress is also fueled by her wish to wear a cute uniform and a hope that working as a waitress will allow her to weaken the obstacle that problematizes her social life. Ito forces herself in a position – i.e. the relational position of a waitress – that forces her to speak and renders her unable to avoid contact with others. While she does not need to speak with her subject – she just needs to assume the (eroticized) image of maid for the (mostly male) costumer, it is nevertheless evident that, within her work as waitress, her Otherness can (always) be heard in her speech.
Satoko Yokohama does not forget to take the chance to explicitly highlight the eroticizing dimension of maid cafés. In one scene, i.e. Ito’s ‘traumatic event’, Yokohama powerfully shows that, even though a maid café is far from an adult-entertainment establishment, the maid-master relationship does have an erotic value for the male spectator.
Far from punctuating Ito’s subjective changes with overly dramatic moments, Yokohama smartly sketches the changes her heroine undergoes with small and natural moments of drama. The beautiful subtlety of these changes of course means that some spectators might fail to appreciate the importance of certain events. One such important subjective event – the first time she expresses her subject and desire to the other – is when she refuses to heed her father’s demand to stop working at the maid café (Narra-note 1).
Ito is highly multifaceted at a thematical level – the simple narrative hides a surprising thematic density. Ito does not only touch upon the endangered state of dialects within Japan but also explores how difficult it is for a subject, who feels Other, to feel at home within a social place structured by a fictional fantasy of homogeneity. Yokohama also powerfully highlights the importance of others for the subject to assume a (desiring) place within the societal Other for himself and his Otherness and the socializing power of playing an instrument. Playing music is, for some subjects, a highly fertile social tool to form new social bonds and an important way to consolidate the place of desire one wants to assume for oneself within the societal Other.
The composition of Ito – a balanced mix between static shots, tracking shots, and subtle spatial moving shots – is a straightforward affair. While there are some beautiful tracking shots of nature and some nicely composed shots in the composition, the strength of Ito does not lie in its cinematography. The strength of Ito lies in the performances and the presence of the actresses/actors. The charm and heart of this lighthearted coming-into-being narrative is entirely function of the pitch-perfect performance by Ren Komai and the great performances of the supporting cast.
Ito is an amazing narrative. Yet, this amazing-ness is not function of any artistry at the level of the composition or the narrative, but of the performances by the cast. The warmth and heart of the narrative as well as the narrative’s potential to touch the spectator, all are function of the performances. Without the myriad of great performances, Yokohama would never have been able to deliver such a charming exploration about the way in which the other allows a drifting subject to moor his desire and find a direction for his subjectivity within the Other.
Narra-note 1: Also note that in this fight with her father Ito eventually fails to formulate a response. Read in the most radical way, one can argue that her father’s signifiers temporarily erased her as subject, silenced her temporarily at the level of her subject.