Colorless (2019) review

Introduction

While it does not often happen that a movie that should have made the top ten list of Japanese movies of a certain year stays under the radar, Takashi Koyama’s Colorless (2019) did just that. Luckily, we will right this wrong by providing, two years after it was released in cinema theatres, an in-depth review.  

Review

One day, Ayomada (Daichi Kaneko), a freelance photographer, meets Mr. Kasamura (Kenta Maeno) to show his portfolio. Sadly, Ayomada is told that his photographs show no passion and lack any kind of drive. Kasamura rightly hypothesizes that he has never known true love. Yet, despite his negative assessment, Kasamura introduces him to a reader model, Yuka Tanaka (Ruka Ishikawa [Shell And Joint (2020)]), that could benefit from his skill.

After his shoot with Yuka, Ayomada invites her to his place to watch the pictures. She accepts and decides to spend the night. During the night, Ayomada tries to kiss her, but she refuses and disappears, in the morning, before he wakes up. Sometime later, Ayomada, still having Yuka on his mind, asks her if he can shoot her new profile picture on Instagram. Much to his surprise, she accepts. Not that much later, he confesses his love for her.     

Colorless (2019) by Takashi Koyama

Colorless is far from a traditional romance narrative. In fact, Koyama masterly mixes romance, drama, and mystery elements to deliver a beautiful exploration of male romantic (phallic) insecurity, the deceiving sense of safety that characterizes the feeling of being the phallic object-of-desire for a female other, and the destructive dimension of a persisting need for being loved. Koyama, furthermore, provides – and this forms the true beauty of the narrative – a powerful but painful investigation of the ungraspable female element that forms a riddle for the male subject and, more importantly, for the female subject herself.    

Koyama tells his story mainly from the perspective of Ayomada, from a male perspective. Ayomada is a fledging photographer, fledging not because he has a passion in photography as such, but because he found an object-of-desire he is passionate about and wants to take photographs of – i.e. Yuka. In other words, his career takes a right turn from the moment he starts shooting Yuka, from the moment he finds a desire to shoot his beloved object.

Colorless (2019) by Takashi Koyama

The initial meeting between Ayomada and Yuka brings to the fore a dimension that quite often marks the interactions between the sexes: the dimension of romantic confusion. Ayomada (mis)understands Yuka’s somewhat seductive interest in him as photographer – I’m curious to know what a photographer’s place looks like; you make me look so great – as being romantically motivated, as an invitation to approach her in a romantic way. And while her interest may indeed be, in a certain sense, romantic, her successful seduction of Ayomada in no way means she is ready to accept his romantic and sexual approach.

Yuka’s refusal of Ayomada’s kiss does not – and this is important – negate Ayomada’s feeling that her interest in him was marked by a certain romantic flavour, but renders her, at a certain level, as a speaking being, ungraspable for him. Even if the seductively cute Yuka escapes his understanding, his romantic interest in her persists. And it is this interest that makes any kind of positive response from her into a symbol of her romantic interest. Obtaining such hopeful symbols does not in any sense mean that Ayomada feels confident to approach her romantically again. No, because he cannot grasp her, because he cannot know for sure if her playful presence and seductive signifiers are symbols of her romantic interest, he is unable to do anything too ‘sexually’ obvious – his ‘romantic’ moves on her need to be devoid of a blatant sexual desire. In other words, because his phallic identity is put into question by her ungraspable presence, i.e. he cannot be sure if she desires him or if she is toying with him, and because she sees him as a phallic animal, he is forced to try to trap her sexually in a non-sexual romantic manner. That is, in fact, why he only succeeds in establishing a relationship with her by confessing his feelings.     

Colorless (2019) by Takashi Koyama

Yuka, a girl trying to become a successful model and actress, is animated by an element of mystery, a mysterious element that not only dupes and confuses male subject, but an element that, when all is said and done, escapes her as well. This – and this forms the triumph of this narrative – makes Yuka a veritable 3D character, a character marked by an unfathomable depth.

Yet, Koyama does provide, luckily without attempting to entirely resolve the mystery that Yuka as woman poses to the male Other and herself, some indications about her subjective logic. It is not difficult to realize for the spectator that behind Yuka’s white purity and her cute seductive playfulness lies a black emptiness and a traumatic darkness. The first indication of Yuka being marked by such colourless emptiness and traumatic darkness is when she wonders out loud if she has any colour. A second indication is when she questions the meaning of going out and underlines the dimension of loss (i.e. being forgotten) that marks any romantic endeavor. But the prime indication of her emptiness and the traumatic past that marks her is found in how Yuka behaves within her relationship with Ayomada, is found in the fact that she often cannot bear being physically apart from him (Narra-note 2, Narra-note 3).

Colorless (2019) by Takashi Koyama

One could understand Yuka’s moments of clinging to the male object as being function of an insatiable search for love, a hysterical search for the proof of the Other’s love, proof of being the phallic object that the male other desires. Or is this search – a question that Colorless forces the spectator to ask – only a seductive ruse to dupe the desiring male other into making her a successful model?

The emptiness that marks Yuka’s subject is emphasized by the fact that she borrows certain signifiers from other subjects to guide her conversations with certain male subjects. She often speaks to a male subject (e.g. Ayomada) with borrowed signifiers from another, e.g. her ex-boyfriend, Ryohei Kitamura (Juntaro Yanagi). This borrowing is nothing but an attempt to hide her subjective emptiness form the Other.

Within their romantic relationship another dimension appears as well: the dimension of the missed inter-subjective encounter. Her emptiness and traumatic darkness remain hidden from Ayomada. Due to his fixation on his desire to feel desired, he fails to see the subjective ‘struggle’, a struggle function of her emptiness and the trauma, that animates many of her acts (Narra-note 4). The romantic relationship is, in other words, stuck in the imaginary dimension, unable to go beyond the field of imaginary pleasure. Given this prominence of the imaginary dimension in their relationship, one can formulate three different questions that underpin the third part of Colorless: Can Ayomada break through Yuka’s mysterious façade of deception and force her to meet him as a subject? Can Ayomada, after – willingly and unwillingly – become confronted with Yuka’s secrets, still find a way to love her or will the truth – the truth of his romantic castration – be too much for him to handle (Narra-note 5(spoiler))?

Colorless (2019) by Takashi Koyama

The composition of Colorless provides a balanced alternation between subtle dynamism, function of fluid spatial movement (i.e. zoom-out movement and slow fluid vertical and horizontal movement) and subtle tracking movement, and cinematographical fixity. Fixity is effective to give those conversational moments with an emotional importance for the subject, e.g. Ayomada, their emotional weight, and the fleeting moments of dynamism are thoughtfully used to give the myriad of photography sessions a pleasing rhythm or, in the case of crude movement, to evoke the emotional turmoil that marks a certain event. That certain dynamic moments also have an emotional flavour – i.e. the flavour of youthful romantic happiness, is often function of the simple music accompaniment (Cine-note 1).    

Yet, the cinematography is only able to strengthen the diverse emotional flavour of the narrative because it feeds of the power of the natural acting performances. The stand-out performance of Colorless is, without a doubt, Ruka Ishikawa. It is mainly due to her performance that Koyama’s dramatic romance narrative has the power to touch the spectator and why the rather intimate finale is so violently satisfying.

Colorless is, in short, an extraordinary film. Koyama does not only please the spectator by delivering an emotionally rich narrative, a narrative that vividly explores the charming beauty of a blossoming intimate romance, the impact of an unsilenceable phallic insecurity on his relationship with the female Other, and the confronting uneasiness by which a girl accepts her own sexual exploitation, but by offering the spectator a painful investigation of the ungraspable female element that forms a riddle for both man and woman alike.

Notes

Narra-note 1: While Yuka’s need for physical presence is driven by a certain traumatic darkness, it does not fail to give Ayomada the sense of having for phallus for her, of having the object she desires. It is therefore not surprising that one of these moments where she demands his (phallic) presence leads to their first sexual encounter.

Narra-note 2: One of the most important questions that drives Yuka is ‘Do you love me?’ or, on other words, ‘Can you lose me?’. The need for Ayomada’s physical presence can, in this sense, be understood as a ‘hysterical’ attempt to ensure herself of his love, of the fact that he cannot lose her.

Narra-note 3: Her desire to make it as a model and actress is underlined by the fact that she does different jobs (e.g. in a soft-erotic massage parlor, in a clothing shop, … etc.) to make money to pay her tuition fee and accepts her sexual exploitation by a magazine editor to further her career as model.

Narra-note 4: Let us also note that Ayomada, after being confronted with same things Yuka kept hidden from him, stops his attempt to expose her secrets. Why? Because her secrets put his own (phallic) position of being desired into doubt, because it is easier to support the lie of being desired than to confront himself with the truth of Yuka’s subject and accept his ‘castration’ in the romantic field.   

Cine-note 1: In certain cases, slow-motion is used to further strengthen the emotional import of the sequence.

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