In 2018, the then 22-year old Aya Igashi impressed many audiences and critics with her debut film A Crimson Star (2018). Yet, while debut-films might offer a showcase of one’s talent, the true struggle lies in confirming one’s talent in one’s second feature film. Can Aya Igashi impress us once more with her talent in No Call No Life? Or will she reveal a bit of directorial roughness that is in need to be polished.
Since last Christmas, Umi (Mio Yuki) has been receiving strange voice mails from a boy called Mahiro asking, in various ways, his mother to come home (Narra-note 1). Trying to call back is not possible as the number is not in use anymore. With the help of her cousin Kosuke Sakura (Atsuhiro Inukai), she learns the address the phone number was linked to. Yet, upon visiting the place with him, they only find the place deserted.
After becoming unwell in this deserted apartment, she happens to encounter Hosokawa (Yuki Inoue), who is known as a chinpira (delinquent boy). Then, one day, out of the blue he asks her to go out with her, yet Umi refuses by telling him not to use the signifier ‘like’ that lightly. Not that much later, while spending the night as Hosokawa’s mother’s apartment, Umi learns his first name and, trying once more to call the unused phone number, suddenly hears the voice of Mahiro wondering who she is.
No Call No Life is a narrative that combines the mystery, sci-fi, and romance genre together to deliver a narrative about the subjective weight of signifiers, the obsessional side of love, and the impact of trauma on the romantic fantasies guiding our acts and signifiers, and the fundamental misunderstanding about what love is.
The importance of the subjective weight of signifiers is highlighted by Umi’s refusal of Hosokawa’s haphazardly delivered romantic confession. She refuses his romantic invitation simply by pointing out that romantic signifiers should have a subjective weight. Hosokawa’s “Because I like You” is, in fact, marked by a subjective emptiness. His subject is evacuated from his romantic signifiers. While the absence of his subject allows him to lightly use the signifier ‘like’, it also causes his flimsy confession to lack any weighty symbolic commitment or power to touch the other subject.
It is also Umi that highlights the obsessional side of being in love by telling Hosokawa that being in love should be marked by obsession or fixation. If one is truly in love, the confrontation with the impossibility of realizing one’s romantic wish should put the subject in a subjective turmoil. She tells Hosokawa about turning black and spending nights lying awake trying to concoct plans to make her beloved hers. Yet, Hosokawa – much to Umi’s surprise – is not without such experience. He knows the obsessional side of love rather well.
As spectators rightly assume, the voice mails Umi has been receiving are the echoes of Hosokawa’s motherly obsession/fixation, the signs of his continued attempts to bring his beloved mother back. This unresolved childhood trauma – the inerasable lack of motherly love, the frustration of not being able to love her, and the physical abuse by some of her boyfriends – will unavoidably lead Hosokawa, when he falls in love with Umi for real, to unconsciously put her in the place of his ‘fantasized’ mother (Psycho-note 1). Hosokawa can only love her by encountering the ideal elements of his ‘motherly’ fantasy within Umi. He reveals as much when he tells her that he might want to kill her when he truly falls in love with her.
Despite the emptiness of his romantic confession and her unrequited feelings for her cousin Kosuke, Umi slowly falls in love with him. Yet, she does not fall in love with him because his signifiers of romance suddenly attain a subjective weight, but because the radical and lethal kind of love that he vocalizes attracts her (Narra-note 2). It is this seductive romantic fantasy as well as her wish to avoid the painful confrontation of seeing Kosuke dating her friend, Hino (Sakurako Konishi), that compels her to spend her time at Hosokawa’s place.
Spending time at Hosokawa’s place eventually leads Umi to discover a certain traumatic incident of her own past. This revelation allows the spectator to grasp that her fantasies about what it means to be in love – her radical demand of love – finds its origin in a past dysfunctional relation. The inscription of such trauma also explains why she, at first, is incapable to approach the male other or accept his romantic or sexual approach (Narra-note 3 (Spoiler)).
Lastly, No Call No Life explores the fundamental misunderstanding about what love truly entails. Love is not, like Kosuke says, about completing each other – “Neither of you can make up for what the other lacks. You both lack the same thing”. In fact, only those who acknowledge their lack can accede to the true meaning of love. In other words, love lies beyond the fantasies of filling up each other’s lack and beyond chasing impossible parental fantasies in the Other. The true nature of love is all about accepting the inerasable lack of the Other and the fact that he is, just like us, a deficient being. Many of the difficulties within romance arise from the subject’s inability or unwillingness to approach this Otherness of this lack.
No Call, No Life touches upon many interesting things, yet Igashi does not always succeeds in delivering these thematical elements in an elegant way. This lack of elegance is evident in the conversations. While many conversations have a pleasant mundane poetic flavour, Igashi often relies too much on words and not enough on non-verbal communication. Whenever such ‘crude wordiness’ appears, it threatens to break the illusion of naturalistic conversations and derail the genuine feel of the blossoming romance.
Another element that hurts No Call, No Life is Igashi’s psychological naivety. While the structure of revealing Umi’s traumatic past has a narrative purpose, it makes little sense from a psychological perspective. A trauma is not simply forgotten and remembered. And a sudden realization of the horrors one has been subjected to cannot simply be ‘worked-through’ by a crying burst and well-meant hug.
The composition of No Call, No Life, on the other hand, is visually refined and pleasant to look at. Yet, the source of this visual pleasure is not really function of her balanced composition or her thoughtful use of slow-moving dynamism – be it her zoom-in shots or her use of shaky framing to emphasize the emotional tension of certain conversations/confrontations, but of her colour-design and her play with the length of depth of field. By giving the colours a certain softness and playing with the length of the depth of field, Igashi does not only ensure that her visuals have a pleasant feel and that the beauty of certain shots (e.g. of the sea, of the sky, …etc.) truly touch the spectator, but also succeeds to attract the spectator’s look from start to finish.
Another element that keeps the spectator engaged is Igashi’s use of musical accompaniment (mobile-phone-like music, mysterious musical pieces, …, etc.) and sounds. For instance, mysterious music is used to heighten the mystery concerning the strange voice-calls Umi receives while the crackling sounds that decorate these strange events echo that the truth of these voice-calls may be stranger than it seems. High-pitched sounds, on the other hand, are utilized to evoke the strange physical phenomena that Umi experiences at certain times. As Umi’s phenomena become so tangible by these highly uncomfortable sounds, Igashi temporarily forces the spectator in her subjective position, powerfully inviting him to experience the narrative from her subjective viewpoint.
Despite suffering from some crude wordiness and implausible psychological dynamic, Igashi’s No Call, No Life is still an enjoyable romance narrative. With her visual elegance, Igashi does not only paint the importance of putting one’s subject in one’s signifiers and how trauma determines the romantic fantasies that guide our acts and signifiers, but also offer us a glimpse at the fundamental misunderstanding of love’s nature.
Narra-note 1: The boy does not only directly ask when he’s mother comes back, but also express his wish for her to return to Santa and wishes her dead so that she can come back on Higan, a Buddhist holiday in March.
Psycho-note 1: The interplay between the voicemails and the actual flashbacks Hosokawa has underline that the mother that he desires (to return) is not the motherly figure he got – a woman that ignores her son, solely gives him money, and allows him to be physically abused by her boyfriends. While the voicemails Umi hears might be addressed to the person he calls mother, his actual demand is that another version of his mother, the ideal loving mother, returns.
Narra-note 2: Hosokawa’s romantic signifiers do become more fueled by his subject. He truly aims to reveal with his signifiers his symbolic commitment to her.
Narra-note 3: By calling her own childhood-self, Umi realizes the traumatic events that marked her own childhood. Yet, despite these events being repressed, the inscription of these sexually transgressive events marks her comportment towards the male other and her fantasies she has about the reality of being in love.
For Umi, Kosuke can only become a true romantic partner if he escapes the shadow of her sexually abusive father.