Birds Without Names (2017) review


Many Japanese film fans will know Kazuya Shiraishi from his narratives Dare To Stop Us (2018), Blood of Wolves (2018), and Dawn of The Felines (2017). Yet, there are many other narratives by him waiting to be discovered. Today, we introduce Birds Without Names, an adaptation of Mahokaru Numata’s novel Kanojo ga Sono Na wo Shiranai Toritachi (2006).


Towako Kitahara (Yu Aoi), despite being in a relationship with Jinji Sano (Sadao Abe), is unable to forget her former lover Shunichi Kurosaki (Yutaka Takenouchi). Sometimes, when Jinji is not home, she watches videos Kurosaki made of them together.  

One day, after calling many times to the Nakamuraya department store about the repair of an expensive watch, Towako meets the attractive Makoto Mizushima (Tori Matsuzaka), the chief of the watches department. Soon, they start an affair. Not much later, after Towako attempted to call Kurosaki, detective Sakada (Masaaki Akahori) visits her apartment. He asks her some questions and informs her that Kurosaki has already been missing for five years.

Birds Without Names (2017) by Kazuya Shiraishi

Shiraishi’s Birds Without Names is, beyond a doubt, one of the most original romance narratives of the last years. The originality of the narrative lies in the fact that the element of romance is function of a critical evaluation of the role the imaginary phallus plays within desire.

So how does Shiraishi evaluate the role of the imaginary phallus in the game of desire? By exploring the dynamic of Towako’s relations with men. Her relationship with Shinji is marked by a certain form of aggression, a form of anger towards this other. Towako treats Jinji in an abusive way, but Shinji accepts his position of being-not-good-enough-for-her as if he were a born sadomasochist. Towako feels the need to underline, time and time again, that Shinji lacks the imaginary phallus that would make him desirable for her.

Birds Without Names (2017) by Kazuya Shiraishi

It is not difficult to discern how Towako’s abusive insistence on Jinji’s phallic insufficiency dictates his comportment. His attacks of worry, attacks driven, at first glance, by a mere fear of losing her as beloved, as well as his desire to become phallic sufficient for her – e.g. by starting his own company, are both function of her verbal aggression.  

Why does Towako feel attracted to Mizushima? In short, because he enters the gaze of Towako as a phallic-enough-man, as a man that is marked by the imaginary phallus – in this sense, he resembles Kurosaki. The encounter of her gazing desire with his body-image illustrates the fact that the phallic element of desire – the phallic shine in the other’s body that ensnares one’s sexual desire – plays out in the imaginary. Once this phallic shine has ensnared the other’s desire, it can either be (ab)used to keep the desiring other deceived or, in the best of cases, be allowed to evaporate by letting the sexual relation accede to the intersubjective level.  

Birds Without Names (2017) by Kazuya Shiraishi

The phallic element she perceives in Mizushima allows her to utilize him as a form of escape. Sexual interaction with him does not only allow her to temporarily escape the suffering that her relationship with non-phallic Jinji causes, but also the unexplored subjective suffering that underpins her violent comportment towards him. Yet, one feels that what Towako finds in her sexual encounters with Mizushima is different from what Mizushima needs from these encounters. The act of sexual copulation serves, in other words, a different function for both.

Spectators will nevertheless notice that the relational dynamic between Towako and Mizushima – a married man who, due to his affair, wants to quit his job and divorce his wife to marry his lover – functions as an indirect realization of Towako’s desire for Kurosaki, a desire vividly visualized in a dream she has. One could even contend that, in her affair with Mizushima, Towako finds a way to satisfy her impossible fantasy concerning a life with Kurosaki. This, and nothing else, seems to be the driving force of her relationship with Mizushima.

Birds Without Names (2017) by Kazuya Shiraishi

Birds Without Names throws, in the latter part of the narrative, an element of mystery into the narrative mix (Where is Kurosaki? And has Jinji something to do with his disappearance? (Narra-note 1 (spoiler)). It is by integrating this element of mystery that Shiraishi can delve into the important role desire plays in creating violent interpersonal conflicts as well as confront us with how the imaginary phallic shine inherently opens the possibility for the desired subject to exploit the desiring subject for his own phallic thirst). Beyond exploring male opportunism in all its perversity, Shiraishialso touches uponimportance of reputation and powerand the exploitation of others it leads to. Taking all the different thematical elements of Birds Without Names into account, we feel compelled to state that Shiraishi’s narrative is about nothing other than the perverse side-effects of a patriarchal phallic societal Other and the related reduction of women into sexual objects to enjoy. Yet, Shiraishi also shows, in his extremely moving finale, that even within such Other love is still possible. 

The composition of Birds Without Names stands out due to its dynamism – offering a pleasant mix of spatial and tracking movement. Shiraishi also uses slow-motion in an effective way – not just to decorate the composition but to make certain moments in the narrative emotionally more potent – and succeeds to visually please the spectator with some truly well-composed shots. Of course, there are static moments in Shiraishi’s composition, but these moments are ever fleeting. These fleeting moments are, in most cases, used to pause and highlight the peculiarity of certain interactions/moments between characters or to focus on certain facial expressions.    

Birds Without Names (2017) by Kazuya Shiraishi

What allows Bird Without Names to become such a satisfying narrative is not only its effective and engaging narrative structure but the strong acting performances as such. The finale of the narrative would never have been impressive and so touching were it not for the pitch-perfect performances by Sadao Abe and Yu Aoi. Yu Aoi brings, with her natural and layered performance, the emotional complexity of her character believably to the fore, while Sadao Abe succeeds in making the sadomasochistic devoutness of his character towards Towako feel truly genuine.   

Bird Without Names is an amazing romance-drama narrative. It is due to its effective narrative structure and the amazing acting-performances by Sadao Abe and Yu Aoi, that Shiraishi is not only able to confront the spectator with the perverse side-effects of a patriarchal phallic societal Other – i.e. male opportunism, but also reveals in his extremely moving finale that even within such problematic Other love remains a possibility.


Narra-note 1: While Jinji is marked by an inability to change himself, despite his words of becoming worthy/phallic enough for her, it is implied in the narrative that, to ensure that his desired Towako remains within his social field, he would do anything. It is this signifier as well as other signifier he uses, like the signifier ‘definitely’ that he, on another occasion, utilizes while telling Towako’s sister that he knows that she did not meet Kurosaki, that make him suspicious.   


One Comment Add yours

  1. Nill Newt says:

    one of the best Japanese films of the 2010s. Stellar perfs from the leads

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