Sometimes an encounter can change the subject’s path. In the case of Chihiro Ito, her encounter with Isao Yukisada, who invited her to write a screenplay for his film Seventh Anniversary (2007), made her leave the art department staff behind to devote herself to the art of screenwriting.
Fans of Japanese cinema will surely know some of the movies she wrote, be it the mega-hit Crying Out Love in the Center of the World (2004), Mamoru Oshii’s The Sky Crawlers (2008) or, more recently, Yukisada’s Narratage (2017) and The Cornered Mouse Dreams of Cheese (2020).
Since last year, she embarked on a different journey all together – the journey of directing her own film, i.e. In Her Room (2022). With Side By Side, Chihiro Ito presents her second feature film.
One year ago, Miyama (Kentaro Sakaguchi) moved to a small village in Nagano prefecture to spend time with his girlfriend Shiori (Mikako Ichikawa), a nurse, and her daughter Mimi-chan (Ameri Isomura). The locals have accepted him into their midst and have come to call him whenever his ability to sense unconscious conflicts and unresolved psychosomatic symptoms can be of use. By softly massaging the bodily area where the unconscious manifests itself, he is able to offer the subject the key-signifier that will help him resolve his current suffering. Yet, sometimes, the unconscious conflict of the subject transforms into a spirit that wanders near him and haunts him.
One day, Mimi-chan tells her mother that she has seen the human shape that follows Miyama on a music video of a band that is getting popular. When Shiori informs Miyama about this person, he remains silent. Yet, not that much later, he seeks Kusaba (Kodai Asaka), the guitarist of the band, out. He invites him to his home, only to confront him with Riko Tachibana (Asaka Saito), his ex-girlfriend, He asks to take her back and finish what he left unfinished by suddenly disappearing.
The narrative structure of Side By Side is structured in such a way that Miyama remains somewhat undefined. The opening of Ito’s narrative seemingly concatenates unrelated narrative fragments that offer a glance at Miyama’s peculiar daily life. The lack of any clear continuity between these opening scenes and the subtle introduction of narrative elements (e.g. the black-clothes man that wanders around him) that, at least at first, escape the spectator’s understanding, forces him/her to latch on to the continuous presence of Miyama, despite the fact that his presence remains vague and indeterminate.
Yet, the spectator does come to understand as the first half unfolds that Miyama’s reluctance to utilize signifiers – his retreat in silence – and the shadowy figures that follow him are intrinsically linked with his unsaid past. Such flight into silence does not only aim to ward off the signifiers from the other that would allow what has remained unresolved to burst forth but also to ensure that he, himself, would not vocalize any signifiers that breathe life into this silenced, yet sensibly lingering subjective tension.
Surprisingly, even if Miyama’s past is slowly unravelled as the narrative unfolds, the spectator is never able to fully gain a grasp on his subject. What’s more, the concatenation of mundane moments – the subsequent encounters of acts and signifiers, make characters like Shiori and Riko increasingly opaque to the spectator.
This indeterminate atmosphere, so elegantly crafted and evoked by Ito, is ultimately what keeps the spectator engaged. She expertly exploits our wish to understand by placing the intentions and thoughts of her characters just outside our grasp. Such structure is not merely a narrative trick, but a way to confront the spectator with a truth that he, due to his continued reliance on the imaginary field, easily forgets: the subject always escapes him or herself; The unconscious always directs, at a certain level, our signifiers and acts. Yet, that does not stop subjects from bonding with each other, sharing moments of imaginary pleasure and impacting the other by their indeterminate presence.
The composition of Side By Side – a concatenation of slow-moving dynamic shots and long fixed shots, stands out due to its dreamy pace. With her peaceful pace, Ito does not merely make the natural beauty of Nagano prefecture come to its full right and the mundane attain a tinge of poetry, but also elegantly emphasizes the serene emptiness between two vocalized signifiers – i.e. silence. It is by elegantly emphasizing such silence that Ito introduces the spectator to Miyama’s reluctance to speak and use more signifiers than are necessary.
The opening sequence of Side by Side, a thoughtful combination of long takes and gentle music tinged with a sense of mystery, is important at introducing the mood and atmosphere of Ito’s narrative and inviting the spectator into the narrative.
That the sense of mystery remains present throughout most of Side By Side is due to Kentaro Sakaguchi’s outstanding performance. Ito’s deliberate visual pace gives him the space and time to fully embody the sense of mystery of the opening minutes with his layered body-language and his cautious speech-acts. While the performances of Asuka Saito, Kodai Asaka and Mikako Ichikawa are not inferior at all, the central element that keeps the spectator engaged as the narrative starts to unravel is the way Kento Sakaguchi stages the mystery that marks the subject of Miyama.
Side By Side is a rather peculiar narrative – a peaceful dream-like visual experience that celebrates both the impact subjects have on each other as well as the manner in which the subject remains opaque to himself and the other. Ito proves that she has mastered the art of atmospherics and has the skill to engage the spectator with her visuals and her unusual but well-structured stories.