Before Kenjo McCurtain decided to embark on the journey to make his first feature film, he tried his hand, like so many young filmmakers, as different genres by making short films – the sci-fi genre with Automation (2017) the drama genre with Yamome (2018), and the horror genre with Transmission (2019). For his first feature film, he chose to tackle the musical romance genre.
To ensure that his estranged father can die happily and to ensure himself of his father’s love, Masa (Takashi Kawaguchi), a rather uptight manga writer, is searching for a woman who he can introduce to his father as his wife. Ultimately, he applies for a rental service and settles for actress Kanako (Yuki Morikawa), a young woman who harbors dreams of stardom as a stage performer.
Without any preparation, Masa forces Kanako to meet his dying father. While everything seems to go well – Masa’s father and Kanako hit it off, she ultimately tells Masa’s father that she’s pregnant.
Masa’s main problem is to be found at the level of his speech. While he converses with others, his speech remains empty, his articulations remain devoid of his subjectivity – he does not put his subject into his words (Narra-note 1). The emptiness of his spoken sentences or, in other words, the fact that his subject is not brought into play in his conversations is most evident in the kind of speech that marks interactions with Kanako.
The speech between Masa and Kanako is function of the contract – she needs to pretend to be his wife for him. Because they meet under this contract, there is no place for either subject in the conversations; Kanako is, in fact, not even allowed to speak about her private life to Masa (Narra-note 2). Their speech is in support of the imaginary, in support of the fiction of being a romantic couple but without establishing any kind of inter-subjective bond whatsoever.
The kind of speech that Masa fails to accede to is a form of straightforward full speech, a form of speech that directly commits, that can establish intersubjective (romantic) commitments and relations. Writing anonymous letters to Kanako forms, in this respect, a solution for him. While these letters allow him to express something of his subject to Kanako and learn something about her subject, he can, by writing the letters anonymously, evade any kind of relational commitment and keep his subject, within the speech-interactions with her, out of play.
The act of writing letters to her implies that Masa unconsciously desires an inter-subjective bond with her, but the failure to realize his own desire renders him unable to let this desire direct his actions and his speech in a revealing manner. Can he find a way to express his desire for her in a way – a direct way that puts his subject into play – that allows Kanako to respond to his confession from her subject? Can he reveal himself as the writer of the letters, can he take his subjective responsibly for the words he addressed to her? And can he utilize the same signifiers when he looks into her eyes?
What does Kanako’s act of ignoring her prohibition to divulge any details about her private life mean? Why does she suddenly tell Masa about herself and her dream of becoming a professional dancer? There are various ways one can interpret this act, but at least it implies that Kanako harbours a desire to keep interacting with Masa. This desire seems to originate from the interactions with the familial others of Masa – and most notable his father. While her position as wife is fictional, the familial others of Masa, duped by Kanako, treat her as if she really were Masa’s wife, she is integrated into the familial interactions as Masa’s real wife. Can her subtly expressed desire and her playful and enticing way she approaches him help Masa to act according to his subjective desire and attempt to give the imaginary established relationship between them its intersubjective foundation?
The composition of Make-Believers offers a fluid mix of cinematographical movement and fixity. This mix, due to being thoughtfully balanced, gives a pleasant but temperate flow to the scene-compositions in particular and the unfolding of the narrative as a whole. The cinematographical rhythm is often strengthened by the stylish jazzy or the classical musical accompaniment.
The musical sequences are fluidly integrated into the unfolding of the narrative – McCurtain graciously avoids making these sequence feel forced – and are framed with a similar compositional style, a style of subtle dynamism. Yet, these sequences, do not take continuity that seriously – either by design or by things outside the control of the director and his crew. While this may form a problem for some spectators, the discontinuous framing is nevertheless instrumental in heightening the visual pleasure of the fun-to-look at Broadway-like dancing routines and the jazzy catchiness of the songs.
The colour-design and lightning design is instrumental in giving the visuals of the narrative a certain softness. This softness, subtle but marking every shot in some way or another, strengthens the visual pleasure of the composition for the spectator.
Make-Believers, the first feature-film of Kenjo McCurtain, is immediately a film that proves his talent and skill. McCurtain skillfully avoids giving his narrative an overly sugary atmosphere – an atmosphere that would give even the most fervent sweet tooth an instant sugar disease, and mixes the right elements, i.e. lightheartedness, a tinge of sadness, and a sensible whiff of romantic hopefulness, into a musical romantic cocktail that is both heartfelt and deeply satisfying.
Narra-note 1: The only speech-element that, in the beginning of the narrative, seems to be driven by certain subjectivity appears to be his desire to write a novel and his reluctance to continue the story of his surprisingly successful manga.
Masa does let his subject appear for a split second in his speech or let his subject subtly direct his demands at certain points in the narrative. Yet, these moments are so indirect and fleeting that Kanako fails to hear the subject that underpins Masa’s vocalizations. One example is when Masa asks Kanako not to change styles that often and to choose between either classy Sumire-style or normal Sumire-style. He asks this not because the style-changes might feel strange for his father but because its strange/weird for him.
Narra-note 2: While Masa is unable to speak about himself as subject, Masa’s father, being duped into believing in his son’s relationship, does reveal some fragments of Masa’s subjective history to Kanako. One can easily feel that revelations by a third person – revelations in imaginary triangular structure – are of a different quality than revelations by the subject himself to his desired other. Yet, revelations by a third person can heighten the chance that an inter-subjective encounter happens.