If one would ask a random Japanese film-fan about his favourite director, not many people would mention Ryutaro Nakagawa. Yet, Nakagawa is slowly carving a place for himself within Japanese cinema with movies like Tale of a Raindrop (2012), Plastic Love Story (2014), and his award-winning Summer Blooms (2018).
One day, after her grandmother is hospitalized and her aunt decides to close the family’s inn, Mio Miyakawa (Honoka Matsumoto) is forced to leave her hometown in the countryside and start a new life in Tokyo.
In Tokyo, she is given a place to stay by a friend of her late father, Kyosuke Misawa (Ken Mitsuishi), who owns public bath in an old and soon to be demolished shopping district. After a failed attempt to work at a nearby supermarket, she starts working at Kyosuke’s bathhouse.
Mio On The Shore offers a low-key but suggestive meditation on the importance of the social dimension of the subject’s coming-into-being. With his narrative, Nakagawa does not only show that the subject can only assume his subjective place via participation in the social field, but also that the assumption of a subjective place and desire allows the subject to engage in the social field in an active way.
At the beginning of the narrative, Mio is a subject that is not yet driven by a subjective desire, a subject that has yet to assume a place for own subjectivity in the social field. Her position within the social field is marked by two dimensions, i.e. the dimension of subjective absence and the dimension of subjective suppression.
The dimension of subjective absence is underlined in the scene where she gives her reason for working at the supermarket; the reason she gives – I can get a full-time position – is devoid of any subjective desire. This short sequence reveals the fact that, in the beginning, Mio’s comportment is not driven by her subject or by her desire.
The dimension of subjective suppression is evoked in the scene that depicts her first working day at the supermarket. The demanding others render her helpless – she is unable to act and, more importantly, unable to speak/respond. It is not only that she does not know how things function at the supermarket, but also that she, confronted with this lack of knowledge, is unable to take responsibility for her lack – i.e. she does not go to the other who will help her. In other words, she responds to the demand of the Other with an emptiness, an emptiness at the level of the ego that mirrors her subjective absence.
How can Mio overcome this failure to assert herself as subject in the social field? How can Mio find a subjective place for herself within this new environment? All depends on her ability to form social bonds and anchor herself socially. Mio On The Shore beautifully shows that it is only by forming social bonds that a subject can subjectively assume a symbolic place within the societal field, a symbolic place that, driven by a subject’s desire, allows him/her to assume a quantum of responsibility and permits him/her to interact with the Other (Narra-note 1).
The composition of Mio On The Shore is simple, offering a concatenation of static moments with, in some cases, some tracking moment thrown into the mix (Cine-note 1). What stands out in the composition are the moments of subtle visual beauty. These moments can either by function of the realistic colour-design, the geometrical composition – e.g. the use of a frame within a frame, or a combination of the two.
Nakagawa’s composition has a slow-moving rhythm, due to his thoughtful use of the cut. Each cut in the composition is meaningful – each cut emphasizes or introduces some aspect of meaning, and decorative cuts are avoided. The slow-moving rhythm of the composition is further emphasized by the minimal musical accompaniment. This musical accompaniment is, furthermore, also thoughtfully used to accentuate the important moments in Mio’s subjective trajectory.
Even though Nakagawa does not utilize close-ups in his composition, the spectator can, by analyzing Mio’s bodily presence within this new metropolitan environment, easily feel the uneasiness by which Mio starts her adventure and see the subtle changes in her presence. That the spectator can sense this uneasiness so easily and perceive her minimal subjective evolution is, of course, all due to Honoka Matsumoto’s nuanced performance.
Mio On The Shore is a great and visually pleasing narrative about the socially embedded nature of the process of coming-into-being-as-subject. Yet, Nakagawa’s narrative, by being unable to offer anything new to the genre or by failing to deliver this old wine is an extraordinary new bottle, will be unable to move the spectator as much as the classics of the genre are able to.
Narra-note 1: It is her work at the bathhouse that gives Mio a crude symbolic place and allows her to take on the responsibilities that mark this place. Yet, assuming this place was only possible because of her minimal bond with Kyosuke.
It is, as a matter of fact, from this symbolic place, this place acting as an anchor, that Mio meets the Other. It is, as a matter of fact, only by securing this minimal symbolic position that all the other social bonds, e.g. with Ephrem (Derbew Yenet), succeed in supporting Mio’s ongoing assumption of her own subjectivity and desire.
Cine-note 1: In some rare instances, spatial moving shots and handheld camera shots are applied as well.