Nobuteru Uchida might not be a well-known director in international circles, but many of his movies in his limited oeuvre, like Love Addiction (2011) and Odayaka (2012), have screened in international festivals. His latest, The Women, also had a run at international festivals, like the Okinawa International Movie Festival, Moscow International Film Festival (2021), and the Asian Film Festival in Barcelona. Yet, is this film one worth watching?
Despite graduating from a university in Tokyo, Misaki (Yukiko Shinohara), who is on the verge of turning 40, has never been able to attain the life she so desired. Stuck in her rural hometown, she spends her time working at the childcare center and caring, as best as she can, for her handicapped mother, Mitsuko (Atsuko Takahata). Yet, her mother makes her life harsh for her, with unsubtle acts of bullying, many verbally abusive comments, and crude demands.
Luckily, the clandestine romantic moments with Naoki (Shunsuke Kubozuka), a home helper who takes care for her mother during the day, offer her fleeting moments of happiness – she even dreams of marrying him. Another way Misaki succeeds in escaping the harsh violence of her mother is to help her childhood friend Kaori (Kana Kurashina) at her bee farm. Yet, these moments of happiness are forcefully robbed from her when Naoki betrays her, and Kaori suddenly commits suicide.
The Women, despite what the title might imply, focuses on one woman, Misaki, and the problematic position she holds within certain relationships. Misaki is, as is quickly highlighted in the narrative, a deeply troubled subject. Her troubled state speaks in how she treats her mother as well as in her subjective need to have a romantic desire.
While Misaki’s mother is not an easy person to deal with, it is evident that Misaki partially orchestrates her relational conflict with her mother. The act of blaming her mother for the suicide of her father still speaks through her own presence – a presence that tries to ignore, whenever possible, the demands of the mother – and her own subtle violent acts towards her mother, e.g. her act of – unconsciously or consciously? – putting the salt out of reach of her mother, but also by subsequently ignoring her unvocalized but evident demand for this salt.
Her troubled being is also made evident by her desperate desire to attain some form of relational happiness. While such kind of desire is, of course, not problematic as such, the spectator easily feels that Misaki’s desire for romantic happiness is nothing other than a desire to escape the very misery she partially organizes for herself. The hidden promise of leaving her ‘unbearable’ mother behind does not only fuel the desperate nature of her desire, but also strengthens her blindness for the other who wants to take advantage of her.
The confrontation with her lover’s lie, the impact of Kaori’s sudden suicide, as well as the sudden problem at her work brings the lingering mixture of anger, frustration, guilt, regret, mourning, and sadness in Misaki’s subject slowly to the boil. Misaki’s guilt, for instance, is function of her failure of accepting her invitation is intrinsically linked with Kaori’s choice to commit suicide. For Kaori, Misaki’s refusal had a radical meaning. We can only grasp this meaning by assuming that underneath Kaori’s invitation to drink together lies a question of love. In this sense, Misaki did not only refuse her invitation but also Kaori’s subjectivity and her desire to be loved. This ‘radical’ refusal by her beloved other of her subject resulted in Kaori’s acting-out, in her act of throwing herself away.
The only way Misaki can ‘assuage’ some of her guilt is by keeping her promise, by ensuring that Kaori’s bee-farm continues functioning. Luckily, she does not need to do alone, as she meets Kaori’s younger sister Rin Sato (-) at the bee-farm. Can Rin or Maryam (Sahal Rosa), the new home-helper, offer her a peaceful way to express something of the cocktail of emotion that boils in her – a way that enable her to attain some happiness – or will this cocktail burst out into more violent ways?
The Women is not an easy narrative to get into, because of a conflict of shifting moods that marks the unfolding of Uchida’s narrative. In fact, Misaki’s emotional states shift so quickly that some of her emotions lose their genuineness and a gap between her deceiving signifiers and her half-hidden subjective emotions become sensible (Narra-note 1). Both elements alienate the spectator, confronting him with a subjective logic that is difficult to grasp and a subject that is not that easy to like.
And while it is commendable that Uchida tried to stage such a complex character – a complexity engagingly brought to the fore by Yukiko Shinohara, this complexity ultimately undercuts the emotional catharsis he wanted to deliver. Moreover, while The Women has many strong individual scenes, the emotional contrasts these scenes create result in an ending that feels forced and is somewhat unrealistic.
The composition of The Women has many dynamic moments, but Uchida relies, mainly on more static moments to evoke the expression of emotion, either by focusing on facial expressions or by highlighting the rhythm and changing intonation of speech-acts, and to underline the emotional impact of certain vocalized signifiers (Cine-note 1).
It is also this reliance on static moments that enables to Uchida to highlight the natural flow of the interactions, but also to beautifully unearth for the spectator that speech is quite often guided by something that remains unsaid as well as the fact that any exchange of signifiers impacts the subject in one way or another. Moreover, Uchida’s reliance on static shots also allows him to add some refined compositional moments – moments of mundane visual poetry – that do not fail to please the spectator.
The Women is a narrative with many beautiful touching moments, nice visual poetic moments, and some impressive fleeting explorations of subjective complexity, yet Uchida is not able to integrate all these elements into a satisfying whole. While the fluid shifts of emotions allow him to offer the spectator an insight into the complexity of the psyche, this complexity also radically problematizes the delivery of the catharsis.
Narra-note 1: One could also argue that there is a conflict between the very victimized position she tries to assume and the active role she plays in composing her own misery – be it by unconsciously performing acts that radically hurt other subjects or by remaining blind for the subjective position and desire of the other.
Cine-note 1: In some cases, Uchida resorts to shaky dynamism to echo the anticipatory emotional tension Misaki is subjected to.