Production Company: Bitters End
Release: 2 August 1997
Length: 95 min.
Format: 35 mm
Director: Suwa Nobuhiro
Executive Producer: Isomi Toshihiro
Producers: Sento Takenori, Kobayashi Koji
Photography: Tamura Masaki
Music: Nick Wood
Art Director: Isomi Toshihiro
Yu: Yu Eri
Kei: Nishimura Hidetoshi
Kumi, Yu’s friend: Watanabe Makiko
Woman in bar: Nakamura Kumi
The Bitter Reality of Japanese Youth
Why can’t we call a fiction film a documentary? Both genres use the same film stock, chemically recording real people engaging in real actions before the camera. What difference does it make that it’s “only acting” in fiction? Don’t we all act to some degree in our everyday lives?
These questions seemed to confront Suwa Nobuhiro when preparing his feature debut, 2 Duo. Both a veteran assistant director to such fiction filmmakers as Nagasaki Shun’ichi and Yamamoto Masashi, and a documentary director for television, Suwa wrote a detailed script for the film only to throw it away at the last instant. Instead, he decided to give his actors a short outline of the situation and leave the rest - including how the story would develop - up to them.
He - and thus we - are mere observers to the troubled love affair between Yu (Yu Eri) and Kei (Nishijima Hidetoshi). Failing miserably in his quest to be an actor, Kei depends heavily on the steadily working Yu for money, something which undermines his pride and feeds his insecurity. He impulsively proposes marriage, but that just seems to pull Yu into an even worse quagmire.
The two talk, but never say anything. Yet their vacuous conversation has the bitter taste of reality to it. Given screen credit for the dialogue (there is no screenwriter listed for the film), Yu, the sister of prizewinning novelist Yu Miri, and Nishijima improvised their character’s words on the spot and the result is a mood impossible to find in a scripted film.
Because Suwa lets his young actors speak as they always do, 2 Duo may be one of the more accurate cinematic depictions of contemporary Japanese youth, revealing a generation profoundly unable to express its own feelings; one that reels off trite cliches to feign happiness or just blurts out “I don’t know” when at a loss for words.
Suwa leaves his characters alone in part by allowing Tamura Masaki, his director of photography and the cameraman for the great documentarist Ogawa Shinsuke, to just follow their actions from afar. The long shot framing is imperfect and the camera movement often misses actions before reframing the characters, feuling the impression that little was planned beforehand.
Standing at a distance, Suwa perhaps felt unable to penetrate his characters’ masks. To gain access to their subjective thoughts, he thus resorted to a technique common to documentary films: the interview. At crucial points in the story, Suwa is heard off-screen asking Yu and Kei questions - albeit not always successful ones - about their motivations and feelings. It is at these moments when 2 Duo comes closest to being a documentary, a record of its own making.
Yet as its title suggests, 2 Duo is about pairs. The film’s defining structure is the pendulum that swings between poles that, while opposite, remain inevitably connected. One such duet is between Yu and Kei and the other between fiction and documentary. Therefore, for all its realistic aspects, 2 Duo remains a tightly structured film, cleanly ordered by the pendulum which moves from the insecure Kei to the unstable Yu, from the couple to their separation, and then back again.
This well-constructed appearance conveys a reality to the extent that both characters look in mirrors and put on faces, but it also produces an unbelievability that hampers the film towards the end. Yu’s break down occurs all too suddenly and excessively and her final decision regarding Kei is structurally too neat.
Yet even if it does not completely succeed in its documentary aspirations, 2 Duo remains an original and compelling attempt to record a generation unsure of its own reality.
Reviewed by Aaron Gerow
Originally appeared in The Daily Yomiuri, 7 August 1997, p. 8.
Copyright 1997: The Daily Yomiuri and Aaron Gerow