Tremble All You Want (Katte ni furuetero)

Japan (2017) Dir. Akiko Ohku

It is said that you never forget your first love (I wouldn’t know but that is what is said) but there is a difference between not forgetting them and clinging on to the futile hope that they will one day reciprocate and make your life complete. The reality is that we should move on, but reality is overrated, right?

Yoshika Eto (Mayu Matsuoka) is a single woman in her mid twenties, stuck in a dull office job and barely has any friends, preferring to spend her nights reading about endangered animals on Wikipedia. She is also obsessed with ammonites and a boy from her middle school Ichimiya (Takumi Kitamura), which she shortens to Ichi, who she hasn’t seen since but holds on to the memory dearly to this day.

At work, gauche colleague Kirishima (Daichi Watanabe), known henceforth as “Ni” for writing an upside down “2” on an account sheet, asks Yoshika out on a date, which she reluctantly accepts, looking at it as practice for when she meets Ichi, whom she hopes to meet by setting up a fake school reunion. Suddenly, Yoshika finds herself going from doomed singleton to having two men to choose from – but which should she choose?

The plot might read as standard rom-com fodder but don’t be fooled – Tremble All You Want is hardly hearts and flowers and more of a cynical and quirky take on the folly of romance and the alienation it causes when it doesn’t come our way. Based on the novel by Risa Wataya, this adaptation by Akiko Ohku is often like a manga or anime is brought to life with its flights of fancy and regular externalised monologues from Yoshika.

Clearly unconcerned by the expectations of her peers or society in general, Yoshika goes about her life happily within the bubble of her fantasy world of cup ramen, ammonite fossils and manga all the while pining after Ichi. Her work colleague Kurumi (Anna Ishibashi) and sole friend notices Yoshika’s habit of handing out nicknames to people, like their manager “Freddie” because of his moustache and slicked back hair, even stomping her feet We Will Rock You style whenever he talks to them!

Kurumi is the only person that really pays Yoshika any attention until Ni arrives on the scene, which helps Kurumi since she has a crush on another colleague that works out for them. The only other people Yoshika talks to include an old fisherman (Kanji Furutachi), a doll-like waitress (Shuri) and a train station guard (Tomoya Maeno). One humorous aside concerns Yoshika’s neighbour (Hairi Katagiri), who she calls Ocarina because of her constant playing of said instrument, only to find her name is actually Rina Oka!

Flashbacks reveal the middle-school infatuation was one-sided, with Yoshika drawing a manga about a prince resembling Ichi, and conversation between them practically non-existent. One day she sees Ichi having to write out lines on the blackboard a’la Bart Simpson and jokes about getting away with changing one of the lines. Later she finds out Ichi did indeed stray from instruction, to the amusement of the teacher.

No big deal, but for the shy lovelorn girl with glasses and messy hair, this was enough to interpret as a connection fated to last a lifetime. The situation is reversed with Ni but he at least has less inhibitions about being open about his feelings, and whilst an earnest enough chap, their first few dates aren’t exactly qualified successes but are enough to give Ni hope some headway has been made.

Looking at the story superficially, we are supposed to feel some antagonism towards Ni for interrupting Yoshika’s path to true love, but this is difficult since the poor sod hasn’t done anything wrong. Yes, he is a bit of a try hard and can’t read the mood but his intentions are noble – if anything, we should be mindful that Yoshika is the one stringing him along by still pining for Ichi.

In case you don’t speak Japanese, these nicknames are actually vital to the story – Ichi means “one” and Ni means “two”, as in Ichi being Yoshika’s first love and Ni – possibly – her second. But, when things take an unexpected turn for Yoshika and she realises how serious Ni is about her, the significance is now that Ni is “second best” to the deified number one, Ichi.

Objectively, Yoshika can be quite cruel because of her myopia and what was once a cute and endearing quality about her casts a dark shadow over her personality and sympathy for her is hard to muster. But let’s be clear, this isn’t her being deliberately malicious, this is a young woman who has been afraid of reality her whole life and has never had to face it because of the walls of fantasy she has put up around her.

As mentioned earlier Akiko Ohku’s approach to the presentation is to envelop it in the same rose tinted bubble wrap Yoshika hides behind, keeping the aesthetic light and the mood bouncy until the bubble needs bursting. When Yoshika hits crisis point, instead of breaking down (that comes after) she sings her woes and finally admits the realisation of what a charade her life has been.

It should be ridiculous and incongruent but Ohku creates such a kooky and borderless world for Yoshika we don’t bat an eyelid. The other thing making it such a natural fit is Mayu Matsuoka. Gifted a wonderful opportunity to show off her versatility and range as Yoshika, Matsuoka responds with a tour de force performance bursting with charisma, pathos, heartbreak, hubris, and an irresistible Amelie-esque joie de vivre.

Tremble All You Want could only be made in Japan and that is part of its intrinsic charm, that and the unique and often whimsical insight into the frailties of life and love, and the folly of hiding in your own fantasy world, as comfortable and preferable as it may be.

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