Tamako In Moratorium (Moratoriamu Tamako)

Japan (2013) Dir. Nobuhiro Yamashita

Kids! Who’d have them? Some parents despair when their offspring finally move out, while others despair when they don’t! Unfortunately for Japanese parents the latter is becoming a nationwide problem with many graduates locking themselves away at home convinced they have no future prospects. This phenomenon is known as NEET (Not in Education, Employment or Training) with the more extreme results being the rise of the hikikimori  – a total shut in who shies away from society – and has been a worrying trend for quite some time now.

Thankfully the titular Tamako (Atsuko Maeda) isn’t that bad but at 23 years old, this recent graduate from Tokyo does little else but lounge around at home, which is the back of her father’s sports shop, in the sleepy town of Kofu, reading manga, playing video games, eating and sleeping. While he may keep a superficial dignified silence, father Yoshitsugu (Suon Kan) is quietly tiring of his daughter’s idleness  as he toils away in the shop.

Originally conceived as four short clips for TV, Nobuhiro Yamashita has expanded them into this film which doesn’t propose to offer any solutions to the NEET/hikikimori problem but instead looks at the situation from the perspective of both father and lazy daughter. One early exchange follows Tamako watching the TV news and declaring “Japan’s hopeless.” to which her father responds, “Japan’s not hopeless. You are!”. He then challenges Tamako as to when she will make start to make an effort to get a job, her snappy reply being “Soon!”.

Scripted by Kosuke Mukai, there doesn’t appear to be any intent to demonise anybody here although Tamako’s selfish and apathetic demeanour makes her quite hard to warm to. She has no friends of her own, obliquely becoming acquainted with younger schoolboy Jin (Seiya Ito) who becomes her default confidante. A young lad with his own life to lead, including a girlfriend, Tamako ropes Jin in when she learns her father has been dating a crafts class teacher Yoko (Yasuko Tomita), sending Jin into her class to check her out.  

Despite the age difference a parallel coming-of-age journey begins for the pair with the younger lad enjoying the experience more. In a cheeky reference to Maeda’s past as leader of pop army AKB48, Tamako applies for spot in an idol band and has Jin take her photo for her application. She was not successful but Yoshitsugu is actually proud of her attempt and pleased with the photos. Jin’s father even puts one in the shop window which infuriates Tamako.

Nobuhiro Yamashita has the dubious honour of being labelled the “King of the Japanese Slacker Movie” and his film history supports this. In fact, one of Meada’s early lead roles was in Yamashita’s 2012 outing The Drudgery Train, although her character it that was the polar opposite of Tamako. For this film however, Yamashita seems to have channelled the great Yasujiro Ozu presenting us with a quiet family drama that relies on witty banter and simple situations. But instead if Yoshitsugu trying to marry Tamako off, her wants her in a job instead.

There is a cycle of repetition that makes up this film, seeing as it does cover a one year period to illustrate how Tamako’s problem isn’t necessarily likely to be resolved by a quick fix solution. The daily slog of Dad opening the shop, sweeping up the house and cooking meals while Tamako lazes about only to eat said meals which she thinks are needlessly extravagant but would certainly miss them if he stopped, becomes an overly familiar sight.

However it doesn’t become stale or grating as these simple visuals tell the story without having to delineate their grievances in lengthy and overly dramatic shouting matches, which would frankly bludgeon the audience with what we already know. On the other hand, mealtimes are usually the only times when father and daughter are together on an equal footing, serving as a neutral meeting ground – at least until they begin talking.

For the most part the pace is brisk the mood relaxed and the tone somewhat earthy, but there is an undercurrent of pathos that blights Tamako’s life, crystallised in a scene where she meets a former Tokyo classmate (Shoko Fujimura) who is back in town. Tamako, on her bicycle, tries to pass by quietly but is spotted; the two girls couldn’t be  more different – Tamako baggy t-shirt and shorts conflicting with her smartly dressed trendy friend. Tamako practically deflates under the pressure of her sense of embarrassing inadequacy, yet they meet again later on in a silent scene of undetermined poignancy.

Having worked with Yamashita before Atsuko Madea rewards his faith in giving her the chance to carry a film with a wonderfully droll and oddly charismatic performance as Tamako, visually worlds away from her glamorous idol days. Suon Kan provides a nicely warm adult counter as Yoshitsugu, while Tamako’s pairing with Jin is given a sweet comic edge thanks to Seiya Ito’s shy youthful presence

Running for a perfunctory 78 minutes this film comes to a halt just as it is getting good, its abrupt and open ending leaving too much unresolved and not in the acceptable “interpret your own ending” way either. Up until then, Yamashita constructs a believable and relatable world that expands its reach beyond Japan, buttressed by the naturalistic atmosphere and unfussy approach to the developments

Fans of Yamashita’s earlier films like Linda Linda Linda and The Drudgery Train will be familiar with his busy but minimalist style that captures the essence of Japan and its societal mores, but Tamako In Moratorium might prove to be something of a surprise through its comparative languid moods and gentle narrative. It is still rich with Yamashite’s astute observational eye and genuine characters but the short run time of this enjoyable film leaves the audience unfortunately feeling slightly unfulfilled.

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