As his oeuvre steadily expands, Yuya Ishii has slowly cemented himself as one of the most talented directors in Japan. He did not only deliver the award-winning comedy-drama Sawako Decides (2010), the poetic The Tokyo Night Sky Is Always the Densest Shade of Blue (2017), the eccentric Almost a Miracle (2019), but also the powerful drama All the Things We Never Said (2020) – our top movie of 2020, and the inter-cultural comedy-drama The Asian Angel (2021). Does his socially-engaged narrative A Madder Red confirm his talent once more or does it show that even the best can stumble?
Seven years ago, Ryoko Tanaka (Machiko Ono) lost her husband Yoichi (Joe Odagiri) in a traffic accident. As the driver, the once well-respected civil servant Mr Arashima (-), suffered from Alzheimer at the time of the incident, he could not be apprehended nor stand trail.
Since Yoichi’s death, Ryoko has raised her son Junpei (Iori Wada) all by herself. Junpei, now a junior high-school student, does not only struggle to understand her signifiers and actions. At school, Junpei is getting bullied for being a so-called a welfare leech.
Not much later, Ryoko meets up with the lawyer of the Arashima family, Narihara (Kyusaku Shimada). He informs her that he is puzzled, not by her refusal to accept any kind of compensation for the incident, but by why she harassed Mr. Arashima’s family at his funeral.
A Madder Red explores the unfairness that structurally marks society and the intertwining paths of subjects. Ishii elegantly shows with his touching drama that the interaction of symbolic-imaginary dynamics (e.g. the importance of the social face, the phantasmatic value of money, sexist values and preconceptions, the a-subjective application of ‘social’ rules, … etc.) and the thirst for phallic pleasure creates a societal field where speech and acts are nothing but a maze of misunderstandings and deceptions, not all Real lives are considered equal, and certain kinds of subjectivities are robbed of their right to be heard and taken seriously. The search of pleasure and the need to self-protect fantasies – be it subjective or social ones – goes hand in hand with the disruption of subjective logic and the silencing of the Other subject’s suffering.
The first unfairness that A Madder Red introduces is related to power – social as well as financial. The once well-respected civil servant who murdered Yoichi radically changed the course of Ryoko and Junpei’s subjective lives, but never received any kind of punishment. The family ensured, with their financial power, that the Arashima name did not become tainted. While the Arashima family tried to offer compensation money, Ryoko refused it because it was merely an empty gesture, a hollow gift not fuelled by an emotional and subjective cost. The administrative and impersonal way of dealing with Yoichi’s death confronted her with how insignificant his tragic death was for the Arashimas and revealed the radical absence of remorse within the family.
Another instance of power-related injustice takes place within the narrative when Saiki (Hideyuki Kasahara), the manager of the garden centre, is forced by someone of the head office to fire a part-timer so that the daughter of a good client can be hired instead. He underlines that it is for the good of the company, but the spectator senses that more selfish reasons lie underneath this sudden request.
The second kind of unfairness that marks the narrative is related to sexual power and phallic fantasies. The normality of phallic violence is, first, touched upon in the crude interaction between Kei (Yuki Katayama), one of Ryoko’s colleagues at the club, and a male client. This painful encounter echoes that many men who search for easy sexual pleasure look down on women, especially those who work in the pleasure industry and give their body to them as a kind of masturbatory tool. This kind of violence is function of the male wish to satisfy his unfulfilled phallic fantasy. It is, in a certain sense, by positioning the woman as a filthy whore, a sexual-object-body beyond subjectivity, that the male subject can ascertain his imaginary phallic position. Another instance of sexual violence within the narrative is when Ryu (Tateto Serizawa) attempts to manipulate Ryoko into giving him her body for financial favours. By trying to exploit her financially castrated position, he does not only aim to get a shot of phallic jouissance, but also tries to install a monetary transaction that will momentarily satisfy his phallic fantasy (i.e. fantasy of desire) – the act of giving money functions, for him, as a sign of his own phallic prowess.
It is not that difficult to see that the bullying that Junpei is subjected to follows a similar phallic phantasmatic dynamic. By calling Junpei a welfare leech and scum because his mother is whoring herself out, the bullies reduce him to an object-to-enjoy. It is only in the presence of this filthy contagious object, this piece of a-subjective scum that brings the country down, that Junpei’s bullies can, via vile signifiers and physical violence, get a shot of phallic pleasure and fleetingly satisfy and their shared self-righteous phallic fantasy (i.e. fantasy of power) (Narra-note 1).
Both the sexist relational dynamic as the dynamic of bullying, as the narrative shows, necessitates the presence of an object-to-enjoy and an unfulfilled phallic fantasy to indulge in – be it a fantasy of desire or of power. Yet, the recourse to these exploitive dynamics also reveals that the sexual aggressor as well as the bully are merely trying to temporarily escape their own sense or position of castration – and temporally hide within the pleasure of their phallic fantasy. Male subjects who search phallic pleasure in clubs or take it with force struggle to feel desirable for the other. Bullies who indulge in the violence of power feel, at certain level, powerless.
What makes A Madder Red painful to watch at times is not the different instances of societal unfairness our subjects are subjected to, but the fact that our subjects attempt to submissively accept these injustices and injuries. Phallic violent moments are uneasy to watch not simply because they reveal the mundane integration of phallic violence within Japanese social fabric but that these women force themselves to submissively accept their sexual exploitation and the fracturing of their subjective position.
For Junpei, the meek acceptance of unjust injuries is puzzling. He asks his mother: “Why are you not angry? Why do you accept this injustice?”. The first time he asks his mother these questions, Ryoko avoids answering the question by telling him that reading books helps a subject to deal with trying times. Kei, after hearing her story, confronts her as well and tells her that she should be angrier. The repetition of these kinds of questions within A Madder Red allows Ishii to confront the spectator with his own passivity within such societal field. Ishi does not merely asks what holds Ryoko’s anger back and what keeps her passive, but also questions why the spectator, as part of the societal system, remains passive by seeing so much unfairness and subjective exploitation (Narra-note 2).
The composition of A Madder Red offers a mix of shaky dynamism, fluid dynamic moments, and static moments. By playing with dynamism, Ishii does not only give moments of transition a pleasant fluidity, but ensures his two-hour and a half long movie has a pleasant rhythm. Shakiness, for that matter, is thoughtfully utilized to reverberate relational tension (e.g. between Ryoko and Junpei). And cinematographical decorations, like slow-motion and pov-shots, are purposefully applied.
The visual pleasure of A Madder Red, while partially function of Ishii’s dynamic composition, also depends on his refined sense of composition. He does not only expertly utilize geometry to create aesthetically pleasing tensions within his compositions, but also utilizes the compositional power of natural colours (blues, red, yellows, …), natural lighting, and depth-of-field to give his narrative a sense of realism and a visual softness.
What makes A Madder Red such an amazing and unforgettable narrative is Machiko Ono’s extra-ordinary performance. While the narrative invites the spectator to see Ryoko Tanaka as a complex character, it is Machiko Ono’s subtle and nuanced performance that truly enables the spectator to experience her as someone from flesh and blood and view her as a character that is radically marked by her unconscious (Narra-note 3).
With A Madder Red, Ishii proves that he needs to be considered as one of the best directors in Japan. With a refined hand, he does not only explore the conflictual tension between the subject and a societal system riddled with injustices, the destructive dimension and protective value of fantasies, the injuries caused by a blind search for a shot of phallic pleasure, the impact of the sense of castration on speech and acts, as well as the importance of social bonds to cope with structural injustices within society. Yet, what makes Ishii’s socially-engaged drama so impactful and moving is not simply the thematical depth but the extra-ordinary way in which Machiko Ono and Yuki Katayama breathe life and realism into the pain, the hopes, the white lies, the tears, the smiles, and the anger of contemporary female subjects subjected to a phallically-structured societal system. Highly recommended.
Narra-note 1: Ishii also highlights the importance of the paternal image and the imaginary capture of one’s desire for a subject’s trajectory.
Junpei’s subjective position is, in a certain sense, protected by his belief in the fatherly fantasy. Yet, the fatherly ideal, full of cracks, only works so well for him because the real subject who draped himself with the fatherly image has passed away. The fact that he needs his father to keep his ideal and phantasmatic shape is underlined by the fact that he does not (want to) understand the truth his mother puts on display in her play.
On the other hand, the imaginary capture of Junpei’s desire by Kei gives him a sense of purpose and a direction within his life.
Narra-note 2: Yet, one can argue that Ishii, quite pessimistically, implies that fighting the structural unfairness within society would, in the end, be more destructive to the subject that his attempt to find a way to keep the hope for a better future alive and trying to make the best from the worst situation possible.
Narra-note 3: The spectator is invited by Ishii to question Ryoko Tanaka’s signifiers and acts by opening his narrative with the phrase – Ryoko Tanaka can act well. It is by putting a shade of doubt over the things Ryoko says and does that Ishii eventually succeeds in presenting Ryoko as a subjective riddle to herself and the spectator. Some of her acts are driven by something unconscious, something that escapes her, while others merely instances on putting on a fake face to ease the other.
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very powerful film with a an awful load of food for thoughts, stellar perf from Machiko Ono