Every narrative Ken Ninomiya has directed has so far impressed his audiences. With The Limit of Sleeping Beauty(2017) he brought the radical difficulty to accept the death of a loved-one to life in a visually mesmerizing and touching manner. Two years later, Chiwawa (2019) he dissected with much visual flair the ills that mark our contemporary relational life. Can he, with his adaptation of F’s Mayonaka Otome senso (2018), deliver another narrative that is both visually pleasing and offers food for thought?
I (Ren Nagase) struggles with his life at university. Not only are the classes boring, but, after being laid off from his tutoring job, he is forced to start working at night to make ends meet.
One day, not long after witnessing an explosion on campus, he decides to join the hide-and-seek club. At the interview, he tells his senior (Elaiza Ikeda) that he feels the urge to destroy. While many things come to his mind, he ultimately tells her that the thing that he feels he wants to destroy the most is himself.
Some days after the interview, he sees a black-suited person (Tasuku Emoto) create an explosion on campus. He promptly decides to follow him. He learns that while he once served the capitalistic system – by making a porn site and dating application, he now utilizes his computer skills to agitate society and make I’s dream of destruction come true.
The Midnight Maiden War is a narrative that might appear somewhat superficial, but by reading the signifiers Ninomiya’s latest reveals itself a socially critical piece that explores the relations between pleasure, love, and desire. Yet, desire is the element that is, first of all, evoked by its radical absence.
The triad pleasure, love, and desire is explored via the relationships that I establishes with Senior and Black-suit and the effect these interactions has on his subjective state. In this sense, it is important to highlight how I is introduced to the spectator The Midnight Maiden War. It should be evident from I’s flat tone and the content of his speech that he is victim of the capitalistic discourse. The discourse of endlessly consuming ‘pleasure’ and mechanically producing it for the other dooms him to a state of boredom and subjective emptiness, but also persuades him to consume ‘screens’ to inject his limp body with some fleeting solitary pleasure (Narra-note 1). This dissatisfaction is linked with the hold screens have over him, with him being the faithful servant to the societal obligation to enjoy screens.
The need for money compels I to join an employment agency that offers a variety of physical night-time jobs. By inscribing himself in this system, he radically subjects himself to the exploitation that marks the capitalistic machinery. The verbal violence that others are subjected to underline that they are merely objects cheaply exploited to produce objects-of-pleasure. I is merely a mechanical cog in the endless machinery to create empty pleasure for others (Narra-note 2).
It is his feeling of imprisoned within such de-subjectifying dynamic that gives birth to his need to destroy – the Other, but ultimately himself. His sudden need for violence, for destruction, is not a desire, but a forceful need to act-out, a need to present the societal Other that de-subjectifies and reduces every desire to a need for which it can offer a fitting object-of-pleasure a violent message. His fantasy of self-destruction – i.e. the radical reduction of himself to the very hollowness that infest his subject – would, in this sense, be the most radical way in which he can confront the Other with the subjective ravage it causes.
Yet, despite feeling himself victim of the machinery of consumption, he is still radically marked by the phallic fantasies that wander in this Other. The subtle interest I shows in Kana (Mayu Yamaguchi), a girl in the same club, is driven by the need I feels to accede to the phallic fantasy (to be an desired object for the other) and to try and realize the Other’s ideal of mundane phallic happiness (i.e. study hard, get a good-paying job, establish a family, … etc.) that he has, at the level of his ego, identified with (Narra-note 3).
The signifiers I utters in the opening of the narrative allows the spectator to gain an understanding of what the signifier maiden ultimately denotes. A maiden is, despite I mentioning love (ai), not a person in search for this crazy little thing but someone who does not know that what he is searching for is something that will animate his body and subject: a desire. A maiden is, in other words, someone who tries to escape the capitalistic repetition of mundane empty pleasure, who tries to escape the short-circuited nature of his desire, yet who does not realize that it is only by establishing him or herself as desiring that he can make a change within society.
This description allows us to qualify Black-suit as a maiden. His erectile dysfunction does not merely reveal that he lacks a sexual desire, but that his lack is caused by losing himself, in the past, into the very repetition of empty masturbatory pleasure. He who exploited the capitalistic system (i.e. by creating a porn website) and male phallic fantasy (i.e. by creating a dating app) to gain wealth ultimately had to pay the price with his sexual desire.
Those people flocking to Black-Suit and I are in their own way victim of the phallic fantasy and the capitalistic machinery (e.g. a boy who is being sexually harassed by his professor, a girl who keeps an electric saw in her room to protect herself from the violence of her alcoholic mother, a middle-aged man bullied into illness, … etc.). It is, in other words, due to the impact of the societal fantasy of phallic normality and the unstoppable machinery of enjoyment that the dynamic of their (sexual) desire is radically ruptured and their subjectivity is hollowed out (Narra- note 4).
The victims of Japanese society quickly form a secret society called TEAM. They start performing devious acts of rebellion all around Tokyo. These attacks on the Other allows these gang of misfits to gain, beyond the capitalistic machinery, a sense of pleasure within life. Black-Suit also gives those marked by the carnivorous capitalistic and phallic Other a place where they are can escape it to indulge in pleasure. In other words, Black-Suit grants the victims of the Other a place where they can avoid being subjected to the obligation to thrive within society and where they do not need to reproduce the phallic fantasy nor follow the rhythm of empty addictive pleasure (of screens or products to consume).
What is Black-Suits’ ultimately goal? He tells I that he wants to awaken those who sheepishly inscribe themselves into the phallic fantasy and happily indulge in consuming and crafting empty pleasure according to obligation to enjoy that structures the capitalistic discourse. Yet, we would be wrong to qualify this goal as being a desire? His actions (e.g. wiping out the data of 1 million people from social networks and planning the destruction of capitalistic and consumptive symbols like Tokyo Sky Tree and Roppongi hills) are not driven by a desire, but are driven by his need for having fun. Moreover, his acting-outs, given to the Other in the form of a wish for the future, grant the vindictive victims of society their injection of pleasure.
Yet, is TEAM’s search for rebellious enjoyment and upset the Other truly revolutionary? Do the terrorist-group and its black-suited leader not forget that what is truly revolutionary is establishing oneself as desiring? Does the structure of TEAM ultimately not replicate the problematic tenets of the societal Other – forbid desire and obligate the other to enjoy (Narra-note 5)? Can I realize, before the search of pleasure ends in burning ruins, that the only thing that makes life worth living is having a (frustrated) desire?
Ninomiya’s composition of The Midnight Maiden War does not simply stand out due to its rich fluid dynamism, but how he utilizes this dynamism to create an engaging rhythm. And by elegantly playing with geometrical dimensions and refined use of colour-contrasts, he succeeds to enrich his composition with some truly elegant shot-compositions and delivering many visually arresting moments. Decorations are always thoughtfully applied, enhancing the overall mood of the narrative while, at times, also visually reverberating the subjective position of certain characters.
What plays an important role in making the flow of Ninomiya’s composition so engaging is the musical accompaniment. As matter of fact, it is by creating such an elegant harmony between music and imagery that Ninomiya ensures that his composition pulls the spectator in and keeps the spectator engaged throughout the narrative – from the first encounter with Black-Suit to the impressive and touching finale.
With his latest narrative, Ninomiya proves, once again, that he remains one of the most promising directors in Japan. The Midnight Maiden War is not only a visually exciting experience but one that, by exploring the destructive tension between the subject and the societal Other and the impact the reign of enjoyment has on subjectivity, shows that the only revolutionary thing that can give life its worth is desire that remains desire.
Narra-note 1: The only screen that offers something more than merely repetitive empty pleasure is, as black-suit elegantly introduces, the cinematic screen. Beyond the binge-watching of Netflix – film and drama reduced to mere objects-to-consume for pleasure, the cinematic event offers something beyond such superficial pleasure.
Narra-note 2: How can we interpret the visual repetition of Tokyo Tower within the narrative?
At a certain level, this tower is a phallic symbol for I. The erected nature of the impressive tower visualizes the phallic fantasy. This tower echoes that I is attached to such fantasy of male normality and that he feels that he can only erects himself as desiring if he can feel, within his fantasy, desired (as the phallus) by the other.
That I states that this tower is the root of all misery/unhappiness is not at odds with its phallic meaning. Rather, this statement strengthens the phallic symbolism. Is it not the case that the attempt of male subjects to be the imaginary phallus for a female subject catapults them into a relational tangle that can never grant the fulfilment of their phallic phantasmatic wish?
At another level, the tower functions as a celebration of the capitalistic machinery. In this sense, the root of misery/unhappiness is nothing other than the very repetition of empty imaginary pleasure (e.g. drinking alcohol, …) that such machinery attempts to doom the subject to.
Narra-note 3: We should not make a mistake and assume thatI’s wish to establish a normal life is driven by a subjective desire. In our view, this statement merely reveals that he superficially identifies with the societal ideal of normality to cover up his lack of desire. In other words, he wants what the other/Other wants to, yet without truly desiring it. He inscribes himself as ego within this ideal, yet not with his subject.
Narra-note 4: The hollow state of subject is subtly evoked via the repetition of the following question: what is the meaning of life?
Narra-note 5: And, is it not ultimately I’s desire for his senpai that complicates his position within TEAM?
I and Senpai eventually meet each other at the radical point of desiring each other. In a very touching and evocative sequence, Senpai reveals to I the struggle she has due to the metonymic nature of desire and the phallic thirst of men that turns her into a sexual object. I reveals his desire for Senpai, but chooses not to consummate his desire. It is his refusal that allows both subjects to remain in a state of desiring.