It is always interesting to explore the oeuvre of young directors. Such exploration might reveal hidden gems or reveal rough products that lack the refinedness of their later work. What can we say of Natsuki Seta’s first feature film? Is it the same level of her Georama Boy Panorama Girl (2020) or does it show us how much she has grown as a director?
In Nagi, a small rural town, the peaceful societal fabric is disturbed by the presence of a serial killer who goes around killing young women with a knife and the mysterious disappearance of Anzu and her brother Kouta.
At around the same time, Mii-kun (Shota Sometani),appears in front of Mayu Misono (Aya Omasa), a sophomore high school student. At first, she does not recognize this intruder and starts throwing dishes at him, but, upon hearing him say ‘Maa-chan’, she recognizes him and throws herself into his arms. Not much later, Mii-kun discovers the two kidnapped children in one of her closets. Not that much later, Mii-kun learns that Detective Kamiyashi (Tomoko Tabata) thinks the kidnapping case is related to the case that brough Mii-kun and Ma-chan together.
A Liar And a Broken Girl, as the title implies, explores the relationship between Mii-kun and Maa-chan, a relationship defined by a shared past traumatic event. Yet, as soon comes apparent, the dynamic of their relation is highly atypical, due to Maa-chan’s unquenchable childish demand for what we will call a mythical motherly object.
Yet, what we name mythically and motherly is denoted by Maa-chan as Mii-kun. Mii-kun is the only thing in the world that is able to breathe life into her and generate ‘libido’ to animate her body and subject. To put it bluntly, without her Mii-kun she is merely a lifeless bag of blood and organs that is indifferent to the Other and unable to invest her libido in the world that surrounds her.
Her need for Mii-kun as libidinal support-object is radical. This radicality is beautifully illustrated by her demand for his physical presence – Come with me to school! – and by the logic of her loving devotion, a devotion solely aimed at keeping this ‘invigorating’ object in her possession. Whenever she does something for him, her gift can only be enjoyed by Mii-kun. She does not accept any kind of sharing of her precious gift whatsoever.
This radicality is also illustrated by the violence that marks her relation with him. As Mii-kun merely functions as a fetish-object to breathe life into her, any kind of refusal by Mii-kun or any act that echoes his betrayal instigates her violence. Either suffocating love or loving annihilation. Either he subjects himself to her suffocating demands and her devout devotion or he accepts the violent punishment for his acts of betrayal (Narra-note 1 (spoiler)).
Spectators might wonder why Maa-chan kidnapped the children. In our view, she re-enacts that what has not been symbolically inscribed in her subject. She shows what she has not yet narrativized, not yet given a symbolic existence. And what about Mii-kun? The spectator easily feels that there is something deeply phantasmatic about this object. Whether he has a true physical reality or not, the fantasmatic or fictive dimension of Mii-kun, driven by a childish demand for an impossible omnipotent (m)Other, seems to function as a defence against the return of her non-narrativized trauma.
What can we say about the function of Mii-kun’s lies and his consciousness of the deceiving nature of speech? In our view, there are two facets that marks his dependence on lies. First, Mii-kun is, at least partially, compelled to promise Maa-chan what he cannot fulfill, to vocalize bitter-sweet words that he does not mean, because he is caught within this oppressive dynamic of her love. In this sense, the lie functions as a way to subdue her. He fakes his devout subordination to her unquenchable demand for love and his acceptance of his function as merely an object within her mental economy to keep her happy (Cine-note 1).
Besides the pacifying tendency of his lying, the lie also has a protective function. At the same time that he satisfies her with his lies, he also ensures that something of his subject is kept out of his relationship with her and others, like detective Kamiyashi. His lying is thus focused on keeping something hidden from her and to protect her from the unvocalized truth that marks his subject.
Yet, despite the interesting dynamics explored in A Liar And a Broken Girl, Seta’s narrative is not without its problems. In the first half, her twisted romance struggles to strike a right balance between light-heartedness and dramatic seriousness. While this balancing reveals Seta’s ability to fluidly blend different emotional tones together, these tonal shifts endanger the genuine feel of Seta’s exploration of distorted relational dynamics and childhood trauma. Luckily, as the narrative progresses, the light-hearted decorations become less intrusive and the caricatural flavour to some characters diminishes.
This transformation washes away the bitter taste of the earlier radical tonal shifts and allows the unexpected twists and revelatory flashbacks of the narrative as well as the elegance of Aya Omasa’s performance to fully draw the spectator into the narrative. So despite various false notes, Seta does deliver a pleasant narrative with a largely satisfying conclusion.
Another problem is compositional in nature. Despite offering a pleasing dynamism, a dynamism function of elegant camera movement or snappy cutting, and visually pleasing the spectator with some nicely composed shots, Seta lacks compositional restraint. In the first half of her film, Seta indulges a bit too much in the pleasure of cutting. This overindulgence leads to visual rhythms that do not fit the conversational flow or overly-present and distracting jump-cut sequences that invertedly disturb the overall visual feel of her narrative. If it were not for the more compositionally subdued second half, Seta would have undercut the interesting plot and problematize Aya Omasa’s performance.
A Liar And a Broken Girl is a narrative that was almost broken in various pieces by Seta’s youthful experiment with tonal rhythms and her enthusiasm with visual decorations and cutting. Luckily she shows, at the right time, the much-needed compositional restraint to allow her exploration of a problematic relational and romantic dynamic to fully engage and please the spectator. A Liar And a Broken Girl hits some false notes, but these notes cannot derail Seta’s first-feature film nor radically complicate the spectator’s pleasure.
Narra-note 1: Eventually, it becomes clear that what animates her is not the bodily reality of her beloved Mii-kun but Mii-kun as a signifier. What Maa-chan thus needs is not the materiality of Mii-kun as object but a bodily object that is willing to be designated with the signifier Mii-kun and accept its phantasmatic, signifying and invigorating function.
Cine-note 1: As it is quite obvious which of Mii-kun’s statements are lies, the repetitive use of light-hearted interjections to highlight his deception feels unnecessary.