Birds Without Names (Kanojo ga sono na wo shiranai toritachi)

Japan (2017) Dir. Kazuya Shiraishi

Is it possible to love someone too much, even if they hurt you badly and that pain never seems to abate to much how you move on with your life? Broken hearts can be mended but broken minds are much more difficult to heal, and no-one wants to make the same mistake twice.

30-something Towako Kitahara (Yu Aoi) is in a relationship with construction worker Jinji Sano (Sadao Abe), fifteen years older than Towako but worships her, doing everything and providing for her yet she treats him like dirt, repulsed by his physical advances. Part of the reason is Towako is still hung up on her previous boyfriend Shunichi Kurosaki (Yutaka Takenouchi), from whom she split in a violent fashion eight years earlier.

With the relationship with Jinji being so fraught, Towako begins an affair with married jewellery store salesman Makoto Mizushima (Tori Matsuzaka), and finds herself reminded of Shunichi, prompting Towako to call her ex up only to cancel the call at the very last moment. The next day, a police detective calls on Towako enquiring about the call to Shunichi as he has been missing for five years.

Based on the novel of the same title by Mahokaru Numata, Birds Without Names is the very definition of a slow burn drama, taking almost an hour to get the crucial plot points and start moving ahead with its sinuous tale of mystery, dark secrets, toxic sexual politics, and unrequited love.

Much of what unfolds across the next 123-minutes is not what it seems – really, the film’s main conceit – though the plodding first act requires some patience before things pick up. It is spent mostly establishing Towako’s repellent attitude towards the devoted Jinji – referring to him as a slug – and his inexplicable tolerance for enduring this endless abuse.

Jinji’s wage is the only thing Towako is interested in; she subsidises this pocket money by making false compensation and refund claims from stores which is how she came to meet Makoto, when his store is unable to fix a watch Shunichi gave her, along with a pair of diamond earrings now lost, but that is another story in itself.

Yet, when, via flashback, we see how the relationship ended, Towako’s clinging to these memories is baffling but hints at a possible softer side. The affair with Makoto is rather immediate through how much she is reminded of Shunichi, especially in the bedroom, which is enough to not even be concerned at being the other woman due to Makoto’s assurances his marriage is moribund.

The construction of the narrative sees regular jumps between past and present that don’t adhere to any chronology, creating the unique sensation for the audience of being concurrently sympathetic and appalled towards Towako. For Jinji we are behind him from the start insofar as how much he puts up with from Towako, but his looking like a Japanese Baldrick and later actions add another curious dimension to Jinji’s character.

Quite often, there is the pervasive feeling we may not get the answers to the questions regarding this coupling once the mystery starts to deepen surrounding Shunichi’s disappearance. Towako visits Shunichi’s wife Kayo (Eri Murakawa) and her uncle Kunieda (Shû Nakajima), Shunichi’s boss, now an ailing old man. Kunieda’s cryptic memories of something Towako cannot recall causes her distress and more confused than before.

Coupled with Jinji spying on Towako and Makoto and Jinji’s manipulating of the affair, we find ourselves caught in a bizarre love triangle where everyone is as bad as each other. It seems unlikely there is a rational explanation for any of this by is point – confidence in a satisfying resolution will either be sky high with feverish excitement or bordering on bottoming out as so much is going on.

Director Kazuya Shiraishi is smart enough to recognise how the audience might be torn on this front, and the random order of the flashbacks begins to make sense and starts to pay dividends in bringing the story full circle. Admittedly, I found the conclusion a tad oblique and surreal for my tastes, though I cannot deny its impact and emotional closure it brought the two central cast members.

Towako is a unique catalyst for this esoteric chain of events, the experience putting her in the position of both victim and passive culprit when her only crime was to fall in love. Her choice in men leaves a lot to be desired but the mechanics of romance are hardly known for its logic. The tragedy of the story is not knowing when that love is hurting you the most and in this case, too many people suffer from this lack of perspicacity.

Playing Towako is a departure for Yu Aoi, usually cast as the timid girlfriend/wife. Here, she is coarse, blunt, surly, angry, sexually active, and thoroughly unlikeable for the most part yet it stands as one of her most accomplished and deepest performances. This compelling turn is proof a change can being out the best in an actor, so it is with some irony that Sadao Abe almost playing to type works wonderfully in tandem with Aoi’s dynamic shift in direction.

Shiraishi is not a director I am familiar with but I can see from this film he has a keen eye for shot composition and mood setting, with arthouse sensibilities entrenched in his style. This might explain the meandering opening act that is too languid for its own good but one the chains are off, the pacing never lets up and we are henceforth at Shiraishi’s mercy.

Birds Without Names is like a boxing match: it spends the early going ducking and diving before landing a series of killer punches that leave the audience as emotionally bruised as the characters. The disappearance mystery subplot might have been enough to carry the film as a dark thriller but interesting questions are raised regarding the expectations of men of their women in their relationships.