Mayu Nakamura presented her first feature film The Summer of Stickleback in 2006. Since then she has dedicated herself to make documentary films or short fiction films, like Among For Of Us (2021). With all that experience, Nakamura returns to deliver her second fiction feature film: Intimate Stranger.
Megumi Ishikawa (Asuka Kurosawa), a single mother who works at a baby clothing store, has been looking for her son Shinpei ever since he went missing a year ago. One day, Megumi is approached by a telephone scammer, Yuji Inoue (Fuju Kamio), who informs her that he knows more about her son. Desperate to find a lead, Megumi pays him for any kind of information he has about him. Eventually, she invites him to stay with her. He accepts, not knowing she will lock him up.
Nakamura’s Intimate Stranger blends traumatic elements, mutual deception, and inviting eroticism to deliver a chilling tale about the darkness of motherhood. Yet, the narrative does not aim to show that motherhood as such is dark and dangerous, but that such motherly danger is function of the identification by a female subject with the pristine image of the mythical mother.
In a very elegant way, Nakamura underlines the difficulty some mothers have to allow the child to separate himself from her – to come into being as subject. The radical identification of a female subject with the motherly image and the (s)motherly ideal that lingers in Japanese society is, in short, detrimental for the subjectivity of the child-object.
Can we not assume, based on the opening of the narrative, that Megumi attempts to realize the mythical and impossible unity between mother and child? It seems that, for Megumi, motherhood only works if her son accepts the position of the phallus (i.e. the object that resolves her motherly lack) within her subjective economy. Yet, the suffocating phallic demand of the mother disallows any kind of coming-into-being as subject and complicates any kind of blossoming of subjective desire. He is only her son if he radically alienates himself and becomes her passive phallic plaything. If any kind of rebellion – be it via a subjective act or via the arousal of a desire – were to happen, this would not only destroy the motherly position of enjoyment but also shatter the precarious equilibrium between motherly subject and phallic-child-object.
Shinpei’s radical absence in the present thus either means that her son could successfully separate himself by escaping her suffocating demand or that, as his subjectivity blossomed, he met a darker fate by the claws of the motherly monster. His absence also means that Megumi cannot function as mother or feel as the mythical complete mother. She is merely a castrated being, a being without her desired child-phallus, but not without a desire to re-attain this mythical position and the joyful bliss that comes along with it (Narra-note 1, Narra-note 2).
The sudden appearance of Yuji in front of Megumi confronts the spectator with a variety of questions. Why does he, someone who partakes in telephone-scams, have some of Shinpei’s belongings? Are these things truly Shinpei’s? Is it only money that drives Yuji to approach Megumi or does he have another motive? Why does he accept his imprisonment? Why does he not make any attempt to escape? The last two questions subtly imply that something within Megumi compels Yuji, that the encounter with her activated a long lingering unfulfilled desire. Yet, what kind of desire is blossoming within him and is it compatible with Megumi’s gaping motherly desire?
The composition of Intimate Stranger stands out due to its dynamism – many shots are, in some way or another, marked by a some form of movement. This reliance on dynamism allows Nakamura to strengthen the emotional impact of more static moments. These static shot-compositions do not only deliver striking visual moments, but also allows the acts these moments elegantly visualizes speak without any kind of support of verbal signifiers.
The fluid integration of close-up moments heightens the overall intimate feel of many sequences but also vividly highlights the intimate and erotic nature of touching. The use of close-ups, together with the elegant use of static moments, causes certain acts (e.g. Megumi taking a razorblade, a firm grab by Megumi, a loving touch,… etc.) to immediately attain a certain darkness. By evoking that the motherly touch can be erotic – can be aimed at enjoying the flesh of the son – as well as a pulsating invitation to destroy, Nakamura ensures that her narrative is marked, from start to finish, by an unsettling relational tension (Cine-note 1). Yet – it has to be said – it is Asuka Kurosawa’s extraordinary performance that enables this compositionally evoked tension to attain its sensible dark seductive nature and to engage the spectator throughout this twisted narrative.
The thoughtful colour-design is instrumental in creating a chilly atmosphere that echoes that things are not as it seems. The subdued nature of the colours, furthermore, elegantly evoke the darkness that lingers in each subject and cannot stop speaking through the subject’s deceptive signifiers and acts and highlights the inherent danger of being caught within an intricate web of imaginary deceptions and unsatisfied desires.
Intimate Stranger is a splendid narrative that dares to explore how problematic mothers can be for their children – the narrative reveals how the loving act towards the child can be destructive for its subjectivity, but also how motherly enjoyment and fantasy cannot but reduce the child to a phallic object. Yet, it is not merely the dare to engage with such theme that makes Intimate Stranger so satisfying. Nakamura thrills the spectator by delivering a composition that entices the spectator with dark dangerous eroticism and allows Asuka Kurosawa to enthral the spectator.
Narra-note 1: This desire is, for instance, underlined by her interest in babies and her intimate touching of baby-clothes.
Narra-note 2: While further revelations in the narrative reveals that some elements in this paragraph are incorrect, these do not complicate the subjective dynamic and desire made explicit here. Rather, these revelations corroborate the desire and fantasy that drives Megumi’s acts with young men.
Cine-note 1: It is, in fact, by evoking that the intimate act of shaving her son is possible marked by a calm aggression towards him infuses an irresolvable darkness into all Megumi’s other acts of ‘love’.