While Ryuichi Hiroki left the soft-erotic film industry in the late 1980’s, he never stopped making films that explore sexuality and desire. His film Vibrator (2003), for instance, delt with sexual discovery, L’Amant (2004), for that matter, explored self-prostitution and his ensemble drama film, Kabukicho Love Hotel (2014), gave us an insight into the ‘social sexual’ happenings at a love hotel. His latest film, scripted by Nami Sakkawa and based on Ching Nakamura’s manga series “Gunjo”, continues this tradition by focusing on lesbian love.
[This film is available on netflix]
One day, Rei (Kiko Mizuhara) gets a call from Nanae (Honami Sato) whom she did not meet for ten years. She decides, for better or worse, to meet her. At Nanae’s apartment, she playfully confesses to Rei that she still loves her. Then, suddenly, Nanea starts to undress herself, hereby revealing her bruises that mark her body. Eventually, she asks Rei to kill her abusive husband for her. Rei accepts her request because she still harbours romantic feelings for her. After the murder, due to certain circumstances, they are forced to escape Tokyo together.
Ride or Die is a romantic narrative that has two main thematical currents. The first thematical element concerns the dynamic of marital abuse. In dealing with this theme, Hiroki reiterates a well-known and often explored truth about the source of marital abuse, the fact that the main motor of marital dynamic of abuse is male phallic insecurity. The violence Nanae is subjected to is a kind of violence that originates from her husband’s fear to be revealed as being castrated, to see his imagined and feared castration realized, and from the impossible-to-silence sense that his wife escapes his control and his phallic demand of being the only one who she desires.
Her husband’s preoccupation with the phallic position of desire is also evident in the very ease by which he lets himself be seduced by Rei. He is eager to take any opportunity to manifest himself as having the phallus, the object the female other desires. He does not miss any chance to enjoy this imaginary phallic position of being desired (Narra-note 1).
The second thematic current concerns the conflictual relation between love and desire. While in many cases, love and desire supplement each other, love and desire can, as Hiroki shows, conflict with each other and divide the subject. Let us first have closer look at Rei’s desire. Her desire for Nanae is – and this might surprise many – function of a phallic something that she possesses, a phallic something signaled by her smile (“My entire life crumbles with just a single smile of yours”). To be clear, the smile is not the same as the phallus, but the imaginary veiling element that signals that she possesses for Rei this non-existing phallus, the object of her desire.
That Rei’s desire for Nanae is deeply sexual is highlighted by her repeated statements of wanting to “fuck” her. She repeats it so often that one feels that Rei, in a similar way as Nanae’s husband, wants to possess her. Yet, whereas Nanae’s husband wanted to possess her as an object that exclusively desires him as her phallic complement, Rei wants to possess her beloved object, at least once, sexually (Narra-note 2). One nevertheless feels that Rei’s burning sexual desire does not cancel out the simple fact that she loves Rei. While sexual desire and love or often intertwined, Hiroki elegantly shows that love and desire are essentially different and conflictual.
What is the consequence of the murder-act? The act of murdering constitutes, first and foremost, a dead-end for both. Rei is sure that she will be the main suspect in the murder case as she left her fingerprints and was filmed by a security guard. She is haunted by the sense that she, sooner or later, needs to pay for her crime of love. Nanae, for that matter, is thrown into a certain abyss due to the murder of her husband. The murder, while granting her freedom, puts her symbolic position within the societal system into question and robs her from the ability to see a future for herself as subject within society.
Rei’s crime of love destroys their ability to function as before within society and forced them to spend the little time they have left together. The murder destroys all social bonds expect one, the bond between Rei and Nanae (Narra-note 3 (spoiler)). Yet – and this is what Hiroki’s narrative explores intimately – what is the support of this bond? Is an intersubjective dynamic of love in play between them or is their new encounter driven by deception and vain desires/hopes? One can furthermore argue that Rei’s act reveals nothing other than that within this societal network of bonds only one desire mattered for Rei, the desire to possess Nanae romantically and sexually. This unfulfilled desire is also emphasized by the frequent flashbacks that explore their ‘relational’ past and Rei’s struggle with her desire for Nanae in particular.
One thing that this rather slow-paced narrative misses is a palpable sense of urgency and futility. While it is commendable that Hiroki chose to intimately focus on how the relation between Rei and Nanae unfolds in these unusual circumstances, he forgets to visually underline the fatalistic aspect of their ‘eloping’, neglects to highlight the fact that the murder investigation can, at any time, put an end to their flight from society. While we, as spectator, understand the fatalistic nature of their escape, Hiroki does not entirely succeed to make us feel it, thus rendering the exchanges between our women somewhat less emotionally powerful than they could have been.
The composition of Ride Or Die stands out due to its floating camera movement – a blend of spatial and following movement. In some cases, Hiroki emphasizes the beauty of the fluid floating nature of his compositional dynamism by refusing to use the cut, by crafting temporally long dynamic shots that float fluidly through the narrative space.
The sense of cinematographical dynamism is also supported by the shakiness – crude or more refined shakiness – that marks many (but not all) of the static shots and some of the dynamic shots (Cine-note 1). But the function of this ‘dynamic’ shakiness goes further than giving the composition a certain consistency. This documentary-styled shakiness is also instrumental in infusing a certain naturalism – a sense of realism – into the story, emphasizing the naturalism of the performances that animate the narrative, and subtly heightening, whenever needed, the dramatic import and the tension of certain ‘violent’ events. Besides this floating dynamism, the visual pleasure of Hiroki’s composition is also heightened by the soft nuanced colour-palette and the effective lighting design.
The rich and often touching emotional fabric of Ride or Die, while mainly depending on the naturalism of the acting performances, is further enhanced by the subtle musical accompaniment. The diverse musical pieces emphasize the variety of emotions on display, hereby further enriching the richness of the narrative’s emotional fabric. Beyond subtly elevating these emotions, the musical accompaniment is also applied to strengthen the flow of Hiroki’s narrative, especially in moments of narrative transition, the road-trip moments.
Hiroki’s Ride or Die is a highly enjoyable romance narrative due to rich current of heartfelt and raw emotions that drive the narrative forward. Hiroki explores the dynamic of marital abuse, highlights the difference between love and desire with subtlety, and reveals how a criminal act affects the subject – i.e. the subjective abyss – and her bonds within society. Yet, the Hiroki’s sensual romantic drama could have been more emotionally powerful and moving if he had infused a more palpable sense of urgency, if he had succeeded in letting the spectator feel the pressing need for their romance to blossom before it is too late.
Narra-note 1: The problematic nature of a phallic focus is also underlined by the taxi-driver our women meet. This taxi-driver is nothing but a phallic opportunist, eager to take any chance to temporarily please his phallic sense, eager to force a beautiful young woman to please, via a sexual act, his fantasy of having it (i.e. the phallus).
Narra-note 2: In our view, Rei’s act of putting her hands around Nanae’s neck to strangle her is driven by the frustration that originates by Nanae’s continued refusal of granting Rei sexual access to her feminine body.
Rei will later contend that she did not kill to have sex with Nanae, but that she killed him out of love for her. While this is true – it is a murder out of love, the blazing desire to enjoy Nanae sexually is a reality that no one can deny. It would not be wrong to argue that Rei’s act of love enflamed her desire to sexually enjoy her.
Narra-note 3: In fact, for Rei, not all social bonds are destroyed. Yet, instead of accepting the familial bond, she deliberately choses, in accordance to the truth of her act, to refuse this bond in favour for the bond with Nanae.
Cine-note 1: The framing of the more erotically charged sequences is marked by a certain fixity and fluid but very subtle dynamism. Other scenes or shots follow the same compositional pattern.