Sweet Bitter Candy (2021) review [OAFF 2021]

Introduction

For our next review, we focus on the second feature film of Yutaro Nakamura, known from his appearances in Tokyo Tribe (2014) and Death Row Family (2017) that was screened at this year’s Osaka Asian International Film Festival: Bitter Sweet Candy (2021).

Review

One day, the Matsui family welcome a new domestic helper, Yusuke Takatsuki (Hoshi Ishida), to do the cleaning and the gardening. High schooler Sanae (An Ogawa) and her sister Yukie (Kurumi Shimizu) are both taken aback from the fact that their new helper is a man and not a woman. Not that much later, Sanae is left alone with Yusuke in the house. Yet, her fear is quickly turned into a romantic interest into this silent and mysterious cleaning guy. Then, one day, after Yusuke steals a lollipop from Sanae’s room, they start to talk.

Sweet Bitter Candy (2021) by Yutaro Nakamura

Sweet Bitter Candy is as much a narrative about a first love – Sanae’s first love, as it is about the difficulty of leaving a haunting relational past behind and allow oneself to invest in a new romantic future.    

The central dynamic of Sweet Bitter Candy concerns the encounter of the young Sanae and the mysteriously silent Yusuke. Yusuke is someone who wants to start anew, someone who wants to escape a ‘traumatic’ event that happened in his past – an event that took place between the sexes. He already physically escaped the context, i.e. Tokyo, where his ‘romantic trauma’ took place, escaped the place marked by reminders of the cause of his suffering. Yet, the act of escaping also underlines that the traumatic event has not yet been mentally worked-through and shows that the traumatic event still dictates his comportment within the social space (Narra-note 1).

Another effect of this event on Yusuke’s comportment concerns the distance he keeps from the other and especially the female other. Yusuke does his very best to avoid interacting with Sanae and maintain a distance from her. While one could contend that this distance is professional in nature, one easily feels that the distance he puts between him and Sanae, for example by refusing her invitations, is function of the ‘romantic trauma’ he is trying to escape.

Sweet Bitter Candy (2021) by Yutaro Nakamura

Sanae, in contrast, attempts to make Yusuke interested in her, tries to force him to transgress the distance he maintains from her and see her as an other-ego and a subject worthy of his romantic interest. Yet, while her initial attempts seem to fail to incite his interest, it does not take long for Yusuke to express, be it very indirect and momentarily, some interest in her.

Yusuke’s presence, beyond allowing Sanae to approach him, also establishes two triangles of conflict. First, there is a subtle ‘unvocalized’ conflict between Sanae and Yukie concerning Yusuke. Both have shown, in their own way, their romantic interest in this person. Yet, this triangle is not most important triangle of conflict in Sweet Bitter Candy. The most important triangle of conflict concerns the conflict between Yusuke and Yamashita (Shunsuke Tanaka), one of Sanae’s father’s employees, over Yukie and later, when Yukie has left for the U.K., over Sanae. It is Yamashita, who unbeknownst to her parents is having a sexual relation with Yukie, that threatens a surprised Yusuke and urges him to stay away from Yukie if he does not want to lose his job. While it is not said with that many words, Yamashita feels threatened in his position of being Yukie’s lover, feels that his ability to enjoy the phallic status that Yukie sexually engages with is in danger (Narra-note 2).

Sweet Bitter Candy (2021) by Yutaro Nakamura

It is also Yamashita that, in another attempt to make Yusuke leave the Matsui household, reveals something dark about his romantic past to Sanae. Yet, Sanae, who remains highly interested in Yusuke, utilizes this information not to destroy him but to try to destroy, once and for all, the distance he has carefully installed between him and herself – she uses this information not to condemn him but to allow him to explain himself from his subjective position to her. Will this attempt finally succeed in allowing him to reveal something of his subject to her, enable him to imagine the possibility of a different romantic future, and take a chance on Sanae? Will the haunting past that determines his comportment in the social field render him unable to allow Sanae approach him as subject? Or will Yamashita, so focused on using his past against him and to secure one of his boss’s daughters for himself, rob him from the feeling that any kind of different romantic future is possible?   

The composition of Sweet Bitter Candy stands out due to its dynamism, a dynamism function of cinematographical movement as well as of subtle camera-shakiness. This floating dynamism gives the narrative a certain naturalism and infuses a certain sense of ‘realism’ into its unfolding. Yet, the composition is not one hundred percent framed with such dynamism. There are many static sequences and static shots thrown into the cinematographical mix. While, at first glance, there does not seem any motivation behind choosing either a dynamic or a static framing for certain sequences, it soon becomes apparent that Nakamura prefers to use more static moments, moments that allow a more pronounced or refined form of composition to take shape, to emphasize the emotional importance or the emotionality of certain events/moments for certain characters, like Sanae and Yusuke (Cine-note 1).

Sweet Bitter Candy (2021) by Yutaro Nakamura

The naturalism does not only depend on the dynamism of the composition, but also on the natural performances – and to a lesser degree on the musical accompaniment. The performances that stand out in Sweet Bitter Candy are those of An Ogawa and Hoshi Ishida. Both succeed to infuse a believable emotionality into their characters and, as a result, into the unfolding of the narrative. This naturalism is furthermore one of the main reasons why the finale is so painful and powerful.

Nakamura’s Bitter Sweet Candy offers an amazing exploration of the clash between a sweet youthful romantic desire and the bitter urge of a wounded subject to defend his subjective wounds. In a deliciously sweet but also in powerful bitter way, Nakamura provides a rather painful answer to the question: Can a youthful romantic desire force a subject, who is furiously guarding his traumatic secrets, to speak about his wounds and open himself up the someone who wants to hear his subjectivity?

Notes

Narra-note 1: Later, in the narrative, the spectator will learn that Yusuke is not allowed to return to Tokyo. Yet, this new piece of information does not negate the fact that what happened in this traumatic romantic experience has not yet been worked trough.

While we get some information about the event and Yusuke’s role in it, the complex truth of the event is never disclosed.

Narra-note 2: Behind the desire to satisfy his phallic position with the daughters of his boss lies another desire, the desire to ‘defeat’ the boss and usurp his position. This desire – and this should come as no surprise – is also phallic in nature – he wants to attain a certain phallic position of power.  

Cine-note 1: In some instances, the same emotional emphasis is attained by composing with cinematographical movement. Yet, the emphasis is not function of the movement as such, but of the music that accompanies said sequences.   

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