Short Movie time: Psychology counsellor (2021)


Is it possible for a director to deliver an interesting narrative without a message or a theme? In our view, it is impossible. While a director might not have any conscious themes he wants to deal with, the subjective act of creating a narrative dictates that something of a theme will take shape via images and signifiers. What theme arises from Zenzo Sakai’s short film? Let’s find out.


Mami Kurata (Mutsumi Suzuki), a pregnant counsellor soon to go on maternity leave, is preparing to go home when a woman named Akemi Yoshitaka (Maki Nishiyama) enters the clinic without an appointment. Mami decides to have a short meeting to explore the purpose of her unannounced visit. Akemi’s problem appears to be quite puzzling.

Psychology counsellor offers a highly unpredictable and enthralling exploration of how fantasies and the unconscious contaminate the relational dynamics with others. By carefully manipulating fantasy and reality, symptoms and hallucinations, and unassumed subjective truths and repressed conflicts, Sakai succeeds in delivering a quite horrifying celebration of the power of the unconscious and of the fact that what we aim to repress vividly returns within our fantasies.  

Akemi, as she tells Mami, has suddenly been seeing a ghost with its tongue hanging out. She fully realizes that it is not real, that this apparition is a phantasmatic illusion without any material reality. She only demands Mami to take the phantasmatic ghost that haunt her subject gone.

Akemi grasps that her symptomatic apparition is connected with a past encounter between her and delivery man Kurabayashi (Riku Tanaka). The perplexing nature of this encounter resides in the fact it led Akemi to perform an act that, up until today, escapes her understanding. Differently put, this encounter stirred her unconscious and forced her to act in accordance with a desire she did not yet assume.

Akemi attempts to clothe her past action in an imaginary clothing – The only reason I kept meeting him was my longing for his scent, but the appearance of the symptom highlights that something is left unaccounted for. The imaginary clothing decorates her speech to avoid the questioning of her own subjective position – i.e. the questioning of her unassumed desire and the implied truth of her marital relationship.

Throughout this narrative, the spectator comes to feel the irresolvable tension that marks counselling work and the challenge that awaits anyone who enters this field. The imaginary dimension, so important to inaugurate the therapeutic bond, ever lurks around the corner to complicate this bond (e.g. the uncalled for indulging in giving each other compliments, the desire to know all about the counsellor). The power of the imaginary results in Mami‘s struggle to safeguard her own boundaries and to keep the female patient at a safe distance.

Another challenge that awaits those in the therapeutic field is one that Mami’s fails to deal with appropriately. During her conversation with Akemi, her facial expressions and demeanour cannot stop echoing her uneasiness and awkwardness. The spectator, in fact, feels that Mami is confronted with something, i.e. a phantasmatic symptom and a ungraspable desire, that speaks to her own unconscious.

What stands out in the composition of Psychology Counsellor is the subtle but effective use of slow spatial movement to foreshadow the uneasiness of the coming encounter and to heighten the growing discomfort as these two women meet. The subdued lighting design is, for that matter, instrumental in dictating the atmosphere. The narrative spaces, marked by many shadows, seemingly echo that, beyond the façade of imaginary understanding, the deepest recesses of the human mind are ever outside the therapist and the patient’s reach. Lastly, Sakai masterly manipulates sounds, speech-acts, and visual moments to play with the spectator’s expectations, elegantly mess with his mind, and add some uncomfortable light-heartedness to his dark twisted but compelling tale.  

Psychology counsellor is, in short, a masterpiece. Sakai does not only prove with this short that he is a master in manipulating the spectator, but also that he can deliver a narrative that grasps the spectator’s attention from start to finish. Yet, can Sakai use his talent to create an equally thrilling feature film? Only the future will tell.    


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