With We Couldn’t Become Adults, Yoshihiro Mori presents his first feature film. For his debut, presents his vision of Moegara’s novel Bokutachi wa Minna Otona ni Narenakatta (2016). Can Mori impress us with his debut?
2020. Makoto Sato (Mirai Moriyama) became a boring 46-year-old. Yet even though it’s been so many years since Kaori Kato (Sairi Itoh) broke up with him, he still cannot give this romantic failure a place and move on.
2015. To escape the farewell party of a television program, Makoto invites Asaka Iwai (Moemi Katayama), a porn actress, to his apartment. While they intend to sleep together, the sight of the dark Tokyo Tower makes Asaka all emotional, compelling her to ask Makoto if he’s living the life he has dreamed of. Later that night, Makoto discovers on facebook Kaori’s blossoming family happiness.
We couldn’t Become Adults is a narrative that is not that easy to classify. While one could categorize it as a romantic drama, the narrative’s insistence on what malfunctions within Makoto’s romantic relationships (e.g. his relationship with Kaori and Megumi Ishida (Yuko Oshima) forces the spectator to experience the film as an evocative character study. This character study grants us – to put it somewhat explicit – an elegant and touching insight in how a subject orchestrates his own romantic demise without ever realizing that he himself is the cause.
Makoto, as becomes increasingly evident as the narrative unfolds, is subjectively marked by his failed relationship with Kaori, scarred by having had her in his arms as well as by the continued presence of her continued absence. Kaori’s impact is most clearly revealed by Makoto’s smoking, his current job, and his failed attempts to write a novel. Yet, the most profound element that echoes her present absence is nothing other than the signifier ‘ordinary’. This signifier is not only the symbol of their break-up but also the key to understand what malfunctions in Makoto’s romantic life.
In We couldn’t Become Adults the signifier ‘ordinary’ has two different flavours. Both Kaori and Makoto exploit the signifier and its general meaning in a subjective manner. The general meaning of the signifier ‘ordinary’ denotes nothing other than the fact that one fully subjects oneself to the ‘mundane expectations’ that structure society and that one gave up certain desire to inscribe oneself in the desire of the Other, in what the Other’s dictates about how one should be.
Yet, how does Kaori exploit the meaning of this signifier? While Kaori utilizes the ‘ordinary’ to subtly pressure Makoto to stop obeying certain societal expectations and break the ‘ordinary’ together with her, the true subjective function of this signifier is revealed when she refuses Makoto’s invitation to live together. The use of the signifier ‘ordinary’ allows her to hide the truth of her position within the romantic relationship and avoid confessing that, for her, the relationship is a dead end. In more concrete terms, her dislike for the ‘ordinary’ betrays her reluctance to truly invest in her relationship with Makoto and enables her to keep her subject out of their interactions.
How does Makoto subjectively use the signifier ‘ordinary’? Even though he utilizes the signifier to express his disdain for ‘normal’ others, e.g. for Kenta Sekiguchi (Masahiro Higashide), the spectator quickly feels that this signifier has a different function for him. The signifier ‘ordinary’ is, in its essence, a signifying memento of his lost future with Kaori and a reminder of his unresolved break-up. Every time the signifier leaves his lips, he subtly echoes his inability to work-through this romantic ‘failure’. Put a bit differently, his refusal to become ‘ordinary’ signals nothing other than his rejection to question his subjective logic and explore the role he plays within creating his own romantic mess.
Makoto avoids his own subjectivity, and this radically impairs his ability to form inter-subjective bonds with others. What he brings into play in his relationships with female others is never his own subject, but an empty ego – a superficial ego by which he deceives others as well as himself. Yet, this superficiality is sometimes disturbed by ‘unintended’ signifiers that fleetingly expose his troubled subject (Narra-note 2).
It is, moreover, this subjective avoidance that caused his relationship with Kaori to fall apart. This ‘truth’ is elegantly evoked in the narrative by underlining what remains absent – e.g. his answers to Kaori’s letters full of subjective revelations, his failure to express his love in words to Kaori, …etc. Makoto’s body may be full of words waiting to go to heaven, but no subjective signifier escapes from his lips. Makoto is, quite simply, unable to bring his subject into play within his romantic interactions with Kaori (Acting-note 1).
It is not difficult to discern that this subjective blindness is the very cause of his romantic failure. As he remained absent as subject in his signifiers, Makoto is also rendered blind for the echoes of the subjective unsaid in the other’s signifiers – he remains oblivious of the true meaning that hides behind certain signifiers. His empty subjective state also discourages the other from revealing her subject to him. Makoto is, in short, not able to truly establish an inter-subjective connection (Narra-note 3).
We couldn’t Become Adults features a non-linear narrative structure. Due to this non-linearity, the unfolding of the narrative depends, more than other narratives, on the device of association. While this fluid associative shifts in time allow Mori to give many moments their impressionistic flavour, this non-linearity also has a more important function: the slow unraveling of Makoto’s subjective logic to the spectator. This logic, in fact, only reveals itself by carefully following the intricate web of echoing and associative signifiers and signifying elements (e.g. photographs, …etc.) that is uncovered by slowly going back in time – from 2020 to 1995.
In this respect, it is important to highlight that the few fleeting flashbacks are direct expressions of Makoto’s inhibited subjective position and the more formal shifts in time – shifts announced with an intertitle – are focused on indirectly highlight the logic that underpins his signifiers and actions. It is the accumulation of this associatively connected impressions allows the finale – a finale driven by Makoto’s flashbacks – to become so moving and able to induce a forlorn mood in the spectator.
The composition of We Couldn’t Become Adults offers a pleasing unhurried fluid dynamism. Such dynamism is not only evident in Mori’s rich use of slow-moving shots – spatial as well as tracking movement, but also in the subtle dynamism that marks the framing of many of the static moments (Cine-note 1). The fluidity of the dynamism does not also give Mori’s composition a visual consistency but also gives his narrative an inviting and engaging visual flow.
This fluid dynamism is not simply a choice of style, but a decision that is driven by narrative needs. In some cases, the lingering nature of the dynamism – following Makoto as he wanders through the streets of Tokyo – beautifully mirrors the moments when Kaori’s voice lingers in Makoto’s mind. This mirroring does not only emphasize that, in 2020, the romantic failure with Kaori still ‘haunts’ him, but that his inability to work-through this failure still determines his comportment and the very inhibition that marks his subject.
We couldn’t Become Adults offers an elegant and moving exploration of a how certain subjects unwillingly compose their own romantic failures. Yet, this is not a narrative of big romantic mistakes, buta forlorn story of how the inability to meet oneself as subject renders said subject unable to encounter the Other’s subjectivity. We couldn’t Become Adults is well worth a watch.
Narra-note 1: The reason why the disappearance of Su makes Makoto emotional is not so much because Su was so important to him but become her disappearance mirrors Kaori’s. In other words, Su’s disappearance breathes life into the event that has profoundly marked his subjective logic.
Narra-note 2: One such slip is “That’s what the world is like, I guess we just have to accept it”. The fatalistic flavour of the statement subtly resonates with his inability to accept or his failure to work-through the truth of his break-up with Kaori.
Acting-note 1: The fact that the narrative is so engaging is also function of the performances of Mirai Moriyama and Sairi Itoh. Moriyama brings the inhibition that marks his subject expertly to the fore, while Itoh infuses the narrative with a certain mystifying charm.
Narra-note 3: This is also beautiful implied by how the letter-exchange is framed.The spectator is only given a glance at what Kaori wrote, at what Kaori poured of her subject into her words addressed to Sato-san. By not revealing Makoto’s answers, Mori creates an emptiness that resonates with the lack that marks his relationships.
Cine-note 1: In some cases, true static shots are present as well. While such moments are often used to deliver pleasantly composed shots and to establish the setting, these moments are also applied to either emphasize the subjective importance of a certain place for Makoto, e.g. the crossing in Maruyama-cho where he and Kaori went their separate ways, or the subjective importance of certain signifiers, conversation, and events for him.