Between Us (2021) review [Camera Japan Festival]

Introduction

Adapting a manga-series is always a challenge. Not only is it necessary to distill the message of the manga and translate it into an effective narrative structure, but the screenwriter also needs to trim the narrative’s fat in such a way that the end-product still succeeds in pleasing fans and newcomers alike. Did Ayako Kato, who wrote the screenplay for the Yasuo Okuaki’s adaptation of Stu-Hiro’s Wadaiko Girls, succeeds in both challenges?  

Review

One night, after hearing about her father’s bankruptcy, Tamaki Matsuzawa (Ayaka Konno), burns her ballet shoes – saying goodbye to her former passion – and starts, despite the school’s ban on part-time work, working in a local supermarket to support her mother. Yet, Tamaki cannot tell her wealthy friends about this familial misfortune.  

Some days later, Tamaki discovers a girl playing Wadaiko in a building not far from the school’s main building. Maria Niijima (Sayu Kubota), who cannot speak due to accident to her vocal cords, urges her to try out the drums, but Tamaki refuses. Tamaki tries to silence her interest in playing drums – hiding it feverishly from her rich friends, but the drum-sounds keep on calling her. Eventually, after being deeply touched by a Raidon Taiko concert, she decides to enter the Wadaiko club.   

Between Us (2021) by Yasuo Akuaki

Between Us is a narrative that explores the difficulty to express oneself as subject – be it literally or figuratively, and the possibility of utilizing the art of creating music as a communicate tool. With his narrative, Okuaki furthermore underlines the importance of finding a way to express oneself as subject and of following one’s subjective desire despite the relational pressure one feels subjected to.

The first thematic dimension is, first and foremost, explored via Tamaki’s trajectory. She might have friends, but there is a certain truth that she cannot share with them – she fears that revealing the misfortune that befell her family would undo her current friendships. Her inability to address the other from her subject beautifully highlights that many youthful friendships are not inter-subjective in nature but are held together by a shared pleasure of the Imaginary, be it by eating delicious things together or by indulging, via the signifier, in each other’s and one own’s richness.    

Between Us (2021) by Yasuo Akuaki

It is because Tamaki’s interactions with her friends solely play out in the imaginary that she feels subjected to a certain social pressure and feels a certain embarrassment. Between Us, in fact, beautifully reveals how antagonistic the field of pleasure (imaginary) and the field of intersubjectivity (symbolic) can be. Yet, how will her friends truly react when they find out about her current situation and her sudden interest in drumming? As she expects them to (i.e. by cutting the imaginary bonds with her) or in a way that surprises her (i.e. by giving Tamaki the possibility to reveal her inner struggle) (Narra-note 1)?   

Tamaki’s decision to join the school’s Wadaiko club is an important act for two different but interrelated reasons. First, her act underlines her pledge to follow her desire and reveal it to the Other (Narra-note 2). Secondly, it shows that, after a period of anxious hesitation, she could muster up enough courage to ignore the anxiety of getting socially ostracized by her other friends. Yet, as soon becomes clear during her first few trainings, her initial act/decision does not mean she has fully embraced her desire nor that she fully extinguished the fear of what her other friends will say and do when they find out.

Between Us (2021) by Yasuo Akuaki

Why is it that, after her family misfortune, the poetry of beating drums appeal so much to her? In our view – and here we touch upon the second thematical dimension of Between Us – the appeal of playing Waidako resides in the fact that Tamaki feels that these traditional drums could allow her to give musical expression to her subjective struggle and enable her to work-through this inner conflict she cannot easily vocalize or share with the other/Other.   

By visualizing Tamaki’s initial struggle in the Waidako club, Okuaki reveals with a confronting vividness how difficult it is to become good at the art of Japanese traditional drumming. While anyone can hit the drum, it is much more difficult to find the willpower to improve, to get the right technique down (i.e. how to use one’s body to hit the drum), create a well-timed symphony of rhythms with each other, and let one’s emotion/passion fuel one’s drumming. The drum is not merely an instrument to produce some sound, but a tool to give expression to one’s subject and touch others at the level of their subject. Yet, Tamaki’s unquenchable passion for the drumming perfection puts her relations with Kotoho (Riko Nagase), the club’s president, and even Maria under pressure. And we, as spectator, are left wondering what fuels her aggressive but passionate obsession. Is it merely the expression of her unvocalized frustration with her family’s misfortune or has playing Taiko transformed in a tool to suppress her inner conflicts?    

Between Us (2021) by Yasuo Akuaki

Among Us furthermore explores the difficulty of establishing an amical relation that has an intersubjective ground. Tamaki and Maria have a chance to encounter each other at a more intersubjective level due to, as strangely as it may sound, Maria’s inability to speak. Her inability creates the possibility for them to avoid the temptation of indulging in empty imaginary chatter and get trapped in the endless cacophony of pleasure that prohibits the flourishing of a full and subjective speech. Yet, Tamaki’s refusal to share her subjective struggle with others and her growing obsession with drumming problematizes the blossoming of an intersubjective bond as Tamaki’s verbal aggression renders her deaf to Maria’s subjectivity and sabotages Maria’s attempts to address Tamaki with her subject (Psycho-note 1). Can they find a way to reconnect with each other?

The visual pleasure of the composition Between Us is mainly function of the pleasant mix between static and slow dynamic moments. This mix gives the unfolding of the narrative an enticing but unhurried rhythm and allows Okuaki to exploit the contrast between dynamism and fixity to strengthen the impact of more stylishly composed static shots.  

Between Us (2021) by Yasuo Akuaki

Between Us also features a great sound-design, allowing the beauty of the drumming movement and the sudden musical encounter of the bachi with the drum skin to come to its full right. Moreover, this refined sound-design allows the spectator to feel every strike with a striking clarity. The dramatic elements of the narrative are carried by the performances of the two lead actresses, Ayaka Konno and Sayu Kubota. While the drumming itself is pregnant of emotionality, it is the subtle chemistry between our leads that allows the finale to become such a heartfelt and satisfying experience.

Yasuo Okuaki’s Between Us is a great narrative that celebrates the energetic art of Japanese drumming, explores the communicative dimension of music, and highlights the very difficulty for subjects to meet each other at the intersubjective level. Yet, while Okuaki brings the narrative to a satisfying close – thanks to the performance of the lead actresses, his nuanced investigation of youthful relational dynamics sadly leaves some narrative threads in need for an answer unfinished.

   

Notes

Narra-note 1: Yet, let us simply add that even if one of her friends invites Tamaki to speak about her inner struggle, it is not sure that Tamaki will be able to take this chance. The continued importance of having pleasure in their amical bonds, in fact, discourages Tamaki, as subject, from bringing her own struggle into the mainly imaginary bond.       

Narra-note 2: To be allowed to join the Waidako club, Kotoho demands that she proofs her worth in a competition with her. While Kotoho has her own reasons for demanding such stand-off – a certain jealousy, this head-to-head allows Tamaki to show how much she desires to strike the drum.

Psycho-note 1: It is important to note that in their conflicts it is Tamaki that violently subjects Maria to her interpretations of her behaviour and leaves no space for Maria to express what she is struggling with. She radically silences her.

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