Japan (2009) Dir. Yutaka Yamazaki
People. Who needs them? I suppose we all do really but then again some of us are more content living a life of isolation, on our own terms, without having to conform to what others do or think about us.
As far as office worker Hiroko (Makiko Watanabe) is concerned, the rest of the world can do one. She is not rude or difficult but prefers her own company, turning down invites for nights out with her co-workers and the like. Instead her nights are spent with an inflatable male torso – no limbs, just the chest, abs and, when fully inflated, a protrusion in the groin area.
But Hiroko’s privacy is shattered when her younger sister Mina (Sakura Ando) arrives wanting to escape from her abusive boyfriend Jiro, formerly Hiroko’s ex. The two sisters are totally different personality wise, making for an uncomfortable scenario but over time they end up with a better understanding of each other.
Torso is the sole directorial work from cinematographer Yutaka Yamazaki, best known for his collaborations with Hirokazu Koreeda. Some may make an immediate connection between this film and Koreeda’s Air Doll because of the inflatable dolls but this is tenuous and spurious at best. If anything, Yamazaki has gone in the opposite direction of Koreeda.
For starters, this is a very minimalist affair, the definition of arthouse in aesthetic, tone and mood. Yamazaki may bring Koreeda’s films alive through his lens but you won’t find such gloss or even warmth permeating through the screen here. Natural lighting, hand held camerawork and a muted colour palette, this is low-fi stuff but completely suited to the story being told.
Similarly absent is a musical soundtrack or any sense of intense drama; in fact there is a good chance many a patience will be tested by the depiction of Hiroko’s daily life, shared in real time of painfully empty passages. Every moment in which Hiroko is mournfully eating her dinner in silence or indulging in her dressmaking hobby is approached with a weary resignation that this is her life now.
Whether Hiroko is happy with this isn’t a pressing concern – it represents a state of comfort and familiarity in her life that is her salvation after a day of dealing with other people, towards whom she shows no apparent dislike. But it is the inflatable torso that is her true companion and yes she does get intimate with it, along with washing it and gently folding it when she is done.
At this point it would be easy to accuse Hiroko if being a weirdo but is it any different if this were a man with an inflatable sex doll? Most people wouldn’t bat an eye lid in that instance. True, in one scene Hiroko does take the torso to a seclude beach, complete with Speedos, and swims with it, buries it in the sand and even goes skinny dipping. Maybe she is a bit loco or maybe this is her release.
The arrival of Mina brings with it sympathy for Hiroko as the younger sister is very needy and tactless. At first she comes bearing news that their father is ill after a stroke but this is not enough for Hiroko to end her estrangement from the family; she even pulls out from attending his funeral leading to a bitter showdown with her mother (Miyako Yamaguchi). No real light is shed on the apparent distance between father and daughter but Hiroko says enough to imply something went down between them.
Mina has her own mini-sub plot based loosely around Jiro, an in-demand photographer who we never see but his presence is felt. It what initially seems like a throwaway, we witness a photo shoot with a model Yui (former AV star Sora Aoi), who initially seems nice enough but reveals her true colours later in the film, indirectly at Mina’s expense.
With such a petty, unpleasant and intrusive people in her life, it is no wonder Hiroko shuts herself away and Yamazaki may have given many a hikikimori full justification for their insular lifestyle. Hiroko isn’t that removed from society but she does suffer from the usual social mores of being unmarried at 34, not possessing supermodel looks or having any real ambitions.
Although not explicitly shown, the idea is that Mina’s predicament, more than her actual presence in her life, did serve as a catalyst for Hiroko to start facing up to reality, whilst in turn Mina’s discovery of the torso helped put a few things into perspective for her too. Yet despite this the low key presentation means we are not hit between the eyes with life affirming rhetoric and a sentimental denouement, this is far too subtle for that.
Less a linear story and more a series of vignette and events in the life of a socially detached woman, this can be a slog at 104 minutes but Yamazaki offsets that by choosing two versatile actors in Makiko Watanabe and Sakura Ando, both capable of inhabiting the skins of the characters and developing their personalities as if they were their own.
Hiroko doesn’t say much in the film but Watanabe doesn’t have to, using just her facial expressions and unassuming body language to do all the talking. So convincing is she at creating distance between herself and everyone that there are time you forget she is on screen, even when she is the only person in the shot!
Ando is the uncrowned queen of Japan’s indie scene and this is another quirky but subtly adroit performance to add to her ever growing portfolio, making Mina an annoying, brash and petty younger sister underlined by keenly aware sense of pathos. The chemistry formed between the two is wholly believable in both its highs and lows.
Torso is hardly a dynamic film and is too sparse for its own good but is thoughtful and possesses a curious appeal created mostly from the lead performances.