Production Company: WOWOW, Bandai Visual
Release: 23 October 1999
Length: 147 min.
Director: Suwa Nobuhiro
Producer: Sento Takenori
Story: Suwa Nobuhiro, Miura Tomokazu, Watanabe Makiko
Photography: Inomoto Masami
Music: Suzuki Haruyuki
Lighting: Sato Yuzuru
Sound: Kikuchi Nobuyuki
Editing: Kakesu Shuichi
Art Design: Hayashi China
Tetsuro: Miura Tomokazu
Aki: Watanabe Makiko
Shunsuke: Takahashi Ryudai
To Know or Not to Know
The romantic pretensions of Hollywood to the contrary, love is a very messy business. After all, the other person is a completely separate being, whose independent thoughts, feelings, and experiences cannot be accessed immediately through ESP, whose very actions must always be interpreted through the unreliable filter of subjective impressions. One wonders if we ever really do get to know our lovers.
This becomes an even more pressing issue in contemporary Japan. With a spate of recent crimes prompting some to question whether young Japanese can truly recognize the humanity - the existence even - of other people, a number of recent films, from Aoyama Shinji’s Shady Grove to Kurosawa Kiyoshi’s upcoming Barren Illusion, have taken the romantic couple as the testing ground for exploring human relationships in an age of social crisis.
Suwa Nobuhiro, as the title of his new film, M/Other, indicates, has made relationships with an Other - the contradictory interplay between intimacy and Otherness - a focal point for his filmmaking. While Aoyama and Kurosawa have addressed the issue with films tending towards allegory, Suwa has resolutely maintained a documentary stance.
His debut film, 2/Duo, in fact, traced the rocky relationship between a young man and woman without using a script: Suwa just explained the story outline and let the actors come up with the lines on their own, speaking from their own real feelings. As if to investigate what they were doing, he even “interviewed” their characters on screen.
M/Other, which won the FIPRESCI critics prize at this year’s Cannes Film Festival, continues this experiment, but in a more powerful and accomplished form.
For a two-and-a-half-hour film, the story is deceptively simple: Tetsuro (Miura Tomokazu), a divorced restauranteur who is living with a designer named Aki (Watanabe Makiko), one day suddenly brings home his son Shunsuke (Takahashi Ryudai). His ex-wife, it turns out, has had a traffic accident and asked him to take care of the boy until she leaves the hospital. But Tetsuro not only failed to consult with Aki beforehand, but afterwards assumed she will take charge of Shunsuke, in spite of her busy work schedule. This creates a rift between the two that eventually prompts Aki to leave.
This is the basic framework of the story, but how it got this way and where it proceeds from there was largely left up to the actors. Suwa’s original plot idea (according to the press materials) was quite different - it focused on the three-way relationship between the man, the woman, and the ex-wife. Thus it was the discussions between the director and the performers, and their improvisations, that produced the story we see. There is no script credit here: all that is given at the end is “Story: Suwa Nobuhiro, Miura Tomokazu, Watanabe Makiko.”
Miura and Watanabe thus have much more of an investment in this film than your average actor, and this is evident on screen. Like the performers in 2/Duo, they don’t necessarily produce the most impressive dialogue, but their sometimes faltering, ineloquent words well-up from inside in a way impossible in a scripted film. What they do is not predetermined: in fact, the ambiguous ending invites the audience to give our input in how things turn out.
To maintain the realistic tone, the camera, manned by Inomoto Masami, a veteran of documentary productions, maintains a distance, shooting the actors in long takes and often in long shots. It is not as emotionally involved as Tamura Masaki’s camera in 2/Duo, but Inomoto’s more polished reticence effectively melds with one of the film’s major concerns: the problem of trying to get to know another person.
Whereas 2/Duo relied on interviews to probe feelings the characters were unwilling to tell to others, M/Other reminds us there are no such easy avenues in real life. The film thus operates on the complicated interplay between what is known and what is not known, what is said and what is not said, what is seen and what is not seen.
Much of this brilliantly revolves around the question of space in this very architectural film. In a case of good fortune, M/Other was shot in a real house constructed in the International Style, with windows almost everywhere - even between rooms. While some rooms offer characters the opportunity to hide, others provide no privacy at all, a spatial characteristic that comes to embody the difficulty Aki faces in this relationship. She wants privacy, a space to work and live on her own, but Tetsuro, especially by bringing in Shunsuke, keeps invading every corner of her life.
While most of his contemporaries try to know the Other in order to confirm the social self, Suwa realizes that in relationships we must also give our others the freedom not to be known. We may demand of our lovers an intimacy like that with our mothers, but they are - and must remain - forever Other.
Reviewed by Aaron Gerow
Originally appeared in The Daily Yomiuri, 21 October 1999, p. 9
Copyright 1999: The Daily Yomiuri and Aaron Gerow