Thanks to her father, the well-known director Shusuke Kaneko, Yurina was introduced, at an early age, to the art of cinema. Seeing her father working and going with him on weekends to catch a movie at the Odaiba complex caused a desire to be visually creative to blossom.
In 2019, she surprised audiences with her touching segment ‘projection’ in Yuki Yamato’s 21st century girl (2019). And now, a few years later, she delivers her first feature film project, an adaptation of Ao Omae’s novel People Who Talk to Plushies Are Kind.
Not long after politely refusing the confession of a girl called Aokawa (-), Nanamori Tsuyoshi (Kanata Hosoda) meets Mimiko Mugito (Ren Komai). They hit it off and decide to visit the plushie club at their university, a club dedicated to making plushies. Yet, they soon realize that this club is not so much about making plushies, but about creating a safe space where subjects can enjoy interacting with plushies and share this pleasure with like-minded others (Narra-note 1). Not long after their first visit, a first year called Yui Shiraki (Yuzumi Shintani) joins the club.
People Who Talk to Plushies Are Kind is an emotionally sensitive narrative that explores the function of the plushie for the subject. As the narrative unfolds and the diverging subjective struggles are revealed, the spectator is able to delineate two functions, one imaginary and one symbolic. At the level of the imaginary, the plushie functions as a transitional object, while at the level of the symbolic is functions as a mute psychoanalytic partner, a materialization of an Other one can speak to.
To better contextualize these two often intertwining functions, we need to explore the subjective struggles that structure the narrative. Nanamori Tsuyoshi struggles to grasp what it means to be in love with a female subject. This struggle explains both why he refused Aokawa’s love confession in the past as his sudden proposal to Yui Shiraki to date each other. While in the former the fear of deceiving the female other and failing to grasp an inkling about what love is all about inhibited him in his romantic endeavours, the sudden desire to unearth the riddle of heterosexual love propels him forward in the latter.
Yet, not long after they start dating, Yui – “You don’t feel like a lover/boyfriend” – unknowingly confronts him with a complex that remained slumbering in his subject: one concerning his masculinity or, better put, with the abyss between the paternal societal image of masculinity and the image he has of himself. The plushie is not, as one might expect, utilized to question this complex, but to subdue the constant reminders within the Other to unresolved subjective struggle.
Mimiko Mugito suddenly stops coming to school. In her case, we can see that the act of holding a plushie functions as an imaginary defence against what can only be described as a subjective abyss. Yet, as her act of withdrawing herself from the societal field shows, the plushie fails to mediate the relationship between her ego and the Other in a constructive way. Later, when she does succeed in venturing outside her apartment, the way she handles the plushie underlines its function as amulet and its aim to ward off the suddenly oppressive presence of the paternal molesting Other.
In the case of Tarayama (Gaku Hosokawa), the plushie is not merely something to hold, but also something to address his inner turmoil to. The fluffy object functions as a kind of lighting rod that allows him, whenever it is needed, to pacify the emotional tension within him – emotions that he struggles to vocalize to another subject. In other words, he turns the plush toy into an Other, a mute psychoanalytic trashcan, to dump his subjective struggles in so that he can keep himself standing in the day-to-day imaginary interactions – from ego to ego.
Yui Shiraki, in this respect, is struggling with her position as woman within a society still scarred by paternalism and tradition. In order to survive within this field full of subtle and less subtle sexual harassment and opportunism, she willingly subjects herself to places where men please themselves by reducing her, within their speech, to an object to be sexually enjoyed. Yet, why does she refuse to talk to a plushie?
Putting all the different slivers of subjective conflicts together, there should be no doubt that People Who Talk to Plushies Are Kind should be understood as a societal critique. Not only does Kaneko critiques the traditional paternal patterns that structure female and male mind alike and underpins the excess of verbal and physical sexual attacks in the societal field, but she also underlines the radical lack of a (psychoanalytic) place for the subject to address one’s Other within the Japanese society. The plushie might function as a symptomatic solution that enables the subject to mediate its relation to the Other, but its mute nature ultimately renders it unable to instigate a change in the subject.
The composition of People Who Talk to Plushies Are Kind consists of a concatenation of long static shots mixed with unhurried dynamic shots. It is by thoughtfully using the cut and thus by creating a slow-moving peaceful visual rhythm that Kaneko succeeds in elegantly emphasizing the fine geometrical composition of many of her shots. This compositional elegance, evident throughout the entire film, does not merely offer moments of visual pleasure, but also enables the spectator to read the geometry (e.g. blocking, …etc.) to get a better sense of the emotional flow of the characters and the subjective problems they struggle with.
It is also very effective that Kaneko interweaved shots from the perspective of plushies in her compositions. By fleetingly putting the spectator in such position – i.e. of that fluffy thing that is being talked to, she does not only introduce the spectator to the intimacy that marks this imaginary relationship, but allows the spectator – who equally cannot respond, to feel its function for the subject. The shifts of colour that Kaneko relies on to create such pov-shots elegantly visualize the way the subject subjectivizes the object-plushie. Irrespective of the bond between the subject and the plushie is imaginary or symbolic, it is turned into a supportive amulet, a fluffy ear that, by accepting speech unconditionally, helps him/her to keep his equilibrium within the societal field and helps mediating the relationship between subject and the societal Other.
The thoughtful use of musical accompaniment does not only ensure that a certain peacefulness oozes from the narrative, but also that the more emotional moments, staged with so much nuance and naturalism by the talented cast, can have its impact on the spectator.
People Who Talk to Plushies Are Kind is a narrative that will surprise audiences because it utilizes the sensitive and touching sketching out of the different functions a plushie can have for a subject to deliver a biting critique on the failures of the societal Other. Kaneko convincingly shows that the symptomatic usage of the plushie attempts to repair the tensive bond with the Other or subdue its overbearing presence.
Narra-note 1: The plushie club has two rules: 1. Don’t listen when others are talking to plushies 2. Treat the plushies with respect.