While Akiko Ohku has tried her hands at different genres, she has, since recent years, made a name for herself as a director tackling the question of engaging in romance from a female perspective. In 2017, she surprised international audiences with her somewhat eccentric Tremble All You Want and, in 2019, she crafted the more straightforward (and less successful) film Marriage Hunting Beauty (2019). Will Ohku return to her peculiar visual style and bring Risa Wataya’s novel Watashi o Kuitomete satisfyingly to life on the silver screen?
31-year-old Mitsuko Kuroda (Non) loves her solo Saturdays. Yet, she is not as alone as one might think. She often holds conversation with a voice in her head, a voice she calls A (Tomoya Nakamura), which stands for Answer. One night, while drinking some limoncello, she becomes a bit fed up with his pushy advice and asks him how she can become more approachable for the other sex. He tells her in a rather frank way that she should change her robotic style of speech and try to let a positive emotionality shape her speech.
Then, one day, while serving tea at a meeting, she encounters Tada (Kento Hayashi), a young salesman, and falls in love with him. She starts, after a chance encounter with him at a popular local shop nearby her apartment, to cook for him.
The main question anyone will ask themselves while watching Hold Me back is: How can we understand the male voice that resides, as a loyal companion, in Mitsuko’s mind? From a Freudian perspective, we cannot but feel that this voice is a version of the Uber-Ich, a subjective internalization of the voice of the societal Other. The soft and caring quality of this inner voice and his advice does not hide the fact that the main purpose of his speech is to limit her and softly remind her of certain prohibitions – e.g. You don’t want to put on weight; You should give up your seat, It’s time to sleep, … etc. Yet, A cannot be reduced to this Freudian Uber-Ich. In some cases, rather than being the voice that echoes the societal Other, A becomes the support of the subjective Other, her unconscious desire. As the support of her unconscious, he does not try to limit her, but to force her, quite literally, to follow her romantic desire.
The charming quality of Ohku’s narrative is function of the subtle awkwardness that marks the initial interactions between Mitsuko and Tada. This charming awkwardness is caused by the inability for both Mitsuko and Taka to overcome their inhibition and make the first step or say the first signifier that might transform their platonic interactions structured around cooking into a relationship where their hidden romantic feelings can be revealed and are allowed to fully blossom. Yet, who is going to formulate the signifier or perform the act that leaves no doubt about his/her feelings (Culture-note 1)?
It is by framing the inability to confess one’s feelings that Ohku succeeds in highlighting the inherent equivocalness of the signifier in the field of romance. As Tada does not confess his love, Mitsuko, who has fallen for him, tries to find in his actions and words a signal of his romantic interest in her or a signal of the fact that they are not meant to be together. Yet, because Mitsuko cannot be sure about Tada’s interest, she feels inhibited to confess her feelings to him.
The lightheartedness of Hold Me Back is mainly ensured by the pleasant dynamic of the conversations as well as those moments where the dialogues, by refusing to remain internal, creates socially awkward situations, e.g. Mitsuko yelling in response to the voice in the middle of the park, walking around her apartment while conversing with the voice, …etc. The lightheartedness of the conversational dynamics is, in some cases, further enhanced via the use of decorative sounds, comical sounds that emphasize the playful flow of the discussions as well as the playfulness as such (Cine-note 1). These sounds are, in some cases, also used to highlight the lighthearted quality of certain playful shot-compositions.
Yet, more charm and more lightheartedness are infused in the unfolding of Hold Me Back by Ohku’s exploration of the romantic interest of Mitsuko’s colleague Nozomi (Asami Usuda) in the stylishly extravagant and overly confident Carter (Takuya Wakabayashi). While Mitsuko and many others thinks Carter is merely a pretty face – a conceited beauty without any brains, it is his pretty face and his confident and overly-cultured presence that has entrapped Nozomi’s romantic desire.
Hold Me Back stands outs due to its documentary-like composition and its often-impressionistic sequences. Ohku does not only utilize ‘shaky framing’ to infuse a sense of realism into the unfolding of her dynamically composed narrative, but also gives her composition, by energetically using the cut and the dynamism inherent to cinematographical movement, a pleasant flow that engages the spectator and, at certain times, a visually pleasing evocative flavour (Cine-note 2). In fact, of all Ohku’s romance narratives, the composition of Hold Me Back is the most refined and most effective in satisfying the spectator.
Hold Me Back is a refreshing and highly touching romance-comedy. The refreshing nature of the narrative lies in the fact that Ohku avoids the tear-jerking melodrama that so often marks Japanese romance narratives. Instead, she offers a more ‘western’ structured narrative with a strong Japanese cultural flavour. The cultural flavour of Ohku’s brand of romance narratives does not stop her from excavating some rather universal truths about the difficult game of romance. Via the presence of the voice called A, she does not only explore the difficulty for the subject to build a satisfying solitary existence but also reveals the difficulty to let an Other subject enter one’s personal mental and physical space. And with her pleasing and highly emotional finale, Ohku also highlights the importance for the subject to give up the mental safety buoy she was holding on to in order to let the Other enter and allow a true inter-subjective relationship to blossom.
Culture-note 1: One culture specific element that problematizes the breaking of the boundaries between Tada and Mitsuko is Tada’s continued used of ‘keigo’. While the purpose of ‘keigo’ is to heighten one’s respect for the other, the evocation of respect also installs a distance between the user and the one he/she is addressing.
Cine-note 1: Decorative sounds and creative cutting are, in one instance, also utilized to emphasize the impact of certain signifiers on Mitsuko’s subjective position – i.e. the impact of hearing another woman talking positively about dating a younger guy.
Cine-note 2: Sudden shifts from static to shaky framing are utilized to emphasize the impact of a certain situation of Mitsuko’s subjectivity, e.g. when she realizes her lingerie is still hanging in her room when Taka is standing in her entrance.
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