Yuki Tanada is a female director that does not always receives the recognition she deserves. Yet, her oeuvre contains films, like One Million Yen and the Nigamushi Woman (2008) and Romance Doll (2020), that are worthy of receiving praise. Can her latest film, based on Waka Hirako’s web-comic My Broken Mariko (2019), put her name a bit more prominently on the international map?
One day, Tomoyo Shiino (Mei Nagano) hears on the news that her friend Mariko Ikagawa (Nao) has died after falling from the balcony on the fifth floor. The mentioning that she took a large dose of sleeping pills confirms that it was not an accident, but an act of suicide. She tries to contact her – in a vein attempt to confirm a mistake has been made, but, of course, her attempts are met with silence. Not that much later, she decides to get hold of her beloved friend’s ashes while dealing with the emotional turmoil her death caused.
My Broken Mariko is a narrative that explores the response of a female subject on the sudden death of her best friend. What ensures that Tanada’s narrative engages the spectator is the structure of the narrative. As the suicide is introduced in the beginning, the spectator is immediately invited to analyse Mariko’s signifiers and acts to unearth the subjective dynamic that underpinned her choose to ultimately commit suicide.
Yet, the trip the spectator embarks on, a trip which might or might not provide the answer to the riddle of her sudden suicide, is deeply subjective. The subjective nature of My Broken Mariko is expressed in the structure of the narrative as such, in the thoughtful intermingling of the present and the past, with fluid transitions determined by associations, either at the level of the image or at the level of the signifier. It is this fluid structure, which visualizes the very emotional waves within Tomoyo’s subject, that gives Tanada’s narrative its engaging rhythm.
We can, without spoiling the narrative conclusion of My Broken Mariko, underline some elements that allows the spectator to understand the relational dynamic between Tomoyo and Mariko. The first element that stands out, in the first flashback, is Mariko’s dependence on Shii-chan. While looking for apartment, she does not merely state that she wants to live with Tomoyo but that she wants to live together right now and that they, even when they grow old, will remain (living) together. These signifiers, signifiers of dependency, underlines that Shii-chan plays a specific function for Mariko. So, what kind of object is she for her?
The second element that allows us to understand Mariko’s subject position and her playful clinging to Tomoyo is touched upon in the second flashback. At the level of Mariko’s family, something is malfunctioning. The familial dynamic she finds herself is abusive – the father violently lashing out to all those that, in his subjective view, challenge his phallic authority and confront him with his own un-erasable castration (Psycho-note 1).
As the narrative unfolds, it becomes evident that, for Mariko, the object that kept her attached to the dimension of life was none other than Tomoyo. Yet, it was not simply Shii-chan’s symbolic acceptance of Mariko that allowed her to cling to life, but the continued presence of her body as real. More than anything, it was her body – a body that does not disappear – that enabled her to radically anchor her existence in the realm of the living and grant her the right to desire the male other (Psycho-note 2). Yet, the way she enters the field of romance is radically marked by the abusive dynamics that structured her familial past (Psycho-note 3, Narra-note 1).
As the narrative’s structure follows the flow of Shii-chan’s mind – the structure being a visualization of her subjective response to her death, it is a given that it explores the impact of Mariko’s death on her subjectivity. It is, in fact, via the acts she enacts and the signifiers she utters that the spectator is able to realize how important Mariko was and is for Tomoyo. This subjective importance is, furthermore, highlighted by her need to have the cremation urn in her possession and the intimate relation between her and Mariko’s cremated remains (Psycho-note 4). Yet, does Shii-chan’s subjective turmoil not reveal that their past relation was structured around a radical misrecognition and fabric of mis-understanding?
Tanada’s visual composition of My Broken Mariko is characterized by subtle dynamism – a subtle shakiness here, a languid tracking movement there. Yet, despite such dynamism, fixed moments play an instrumental role in her composition. Tanada elegantly utilizes such still moments either to highlight what the body and the face communicates – and thus to invite the spectator to hear what speaks at that non-verbal level, to stage a certain surge of light-heartedness, or to add a moment of poetic stillness. In certain instances, Tanada adds shakiness to these moments, radically breaking their stillness, to support the emotionality that underpins uttered signifiers.
Moreover, it is via such static moments that the naturalistic colour and lightning design are able to come to their full right. Only by relying on such stillness can the beautiful colour-contrasts realize their compositional tension and can certain shot-compositions give rise to some kind of associative signification.
My Broken Mariko offers a compelling exploration of the emotional turmoil a female subject caused by the sudden death of someone important – a violent mix of anger, sadness, and feeling lost in mis-understanding – and the complexity of relational dynamics. Tanada elegantly shows that the traumatic familial past structures, unconsciously, the relational present – leading the abused subject to re-install, beyond all sense, a structure of abuse.
Psycho-note 1: In a certain sense, the father tries to undo his own castration through violence, but, by relying on such violence, he only end up asserting his position of being radically castrated.
If he did not feel castrated (i.e. devoid of power), he would not try to undo his subjective struggle through hurtful signifiers and violent (sexual) acts.
Psycho-note 2: What Mariko loves in Shii-chan is nothing other than the ideal mother, the mother that is solely devoted to her and remains present.
Psycho-note 3: As a result, Mariko keeps re-encountering the familial abusive dynamic within her own romantic relationships. She succeeds, in a certain sense, to re-find her father in the male other she falls in love with.
Narra-note 1: If we come to understand the fundamental role Tomoyo played for Mariko, two new questions arise: Why made the rope that anchored her to life snap? And why is there no letter addressed to her beloved anchor?
Psycho-note 4: The cremation urn radically represents, as is beautifully evoked in the narrative, Mariko as phantasmatic presence. The urn offers Shiino the materiality to try and keep Mariko somewhat alive in her fantasy. Yet, she does not simply need this materiality to keep her, as fantasy, but to grant herself the time to distance herself from Mariko, to work-through the emotions that her sudden death causes, and to inscribe her absence radically into her subject.