Bad Poetry Tokyo
Japan (2018) Dir. Anshul Chauhan
“If you don’t have a dream, how you gonna have a dream come true?”
The problem with dreams is that they are easily crushed if they aren’t attained whilst the timing is still right, often ending up on the wayside as real life gets in the way. Only then is not the lack of trying but fate telling you to give it up.
30-year old Jun (Shuna Iijima) left her rural hometown and moved to Tokyo to pursue her dream of becoming an actress. Having impressed at a audition for a three-month film shoot in Canada, Jun is hopeful she has the role but like many others, she took a job in a hostess bar to save for a trip to LA, over time becoming in demand with the punters for her “additional” services.
Her boyfriend Taka (Orson Mochizuki), who works the door at the bar, doesn’t want Jun to leave and neither does his boss, so Taka has a friend break into her flat to steal the money. Jun comes home early and catches the intruder, suffering severe facial injuries from the scuffle. Dejected this will cost her the acting job and angry at Taka’s betrayal, Jun decides to head home but things are no better for her there either.
Anshul Chauhan, as you might have gathered, isn’t Japanese (he is in fact Indian) yet he has made an authentic Japanese film in Bad Poetry Tokyo. Chauhan’s background is in animation, but like Jun, he had a dream of being a director and in 2016 set up his own studio Kowatanda film, this being its first feature release.
Coming from a male, this is a very sympathetic and empathetic story towards women and the perceived superficial value they have for men. Far be it for me to imply Chauhan is drawing on personal knowledge of wannabe starlets and the casting couch in the film business, but there is a palpable anger and intent to shame regarding shallow attitudes towards women.
Jun knows what she has got herself into, seeing it as a means to an end; in essence she is acting but without a camera present. Chauhan plays a powerful opening gambit during Jun’s audition where she plays a beaten woman at the end of her tether. With her sad eyes, gamine frame, and pale face automatically making her look like a victim, there is alarming veracity in her acting, screaming like a banshee and crying real tears.
Up until this point, we know nothing about Jun, the first revelations arriving with Taka when he shows up for a quick afternoon bunk up. Taka is more resigned to Jun’s priapic activities than comfortable with them since he got her the job, and whilst her going away for three months hurts Taka, he is more worried about her absence at the bar upsetting their boss.
Following a fight with a demanding and possessive patron and her face being scarred jeopardising her acting – ironic given she auditioned to play a battered woman – Jun’s world is on the brink of collapse so she does what most people do – go home to her parents. As it is five years since she left without any communication since, there is no welcome home party. Instead, she finds her father (Kohei Mashiba) living in a mess and her mother passed away, both blaming each other for not making contact about this.
Bickering and hurling insults at each other – “Your birth was a mistake” – Jun doesn’t know which way to turn. It was her father that caused Jun to leave in the first place, the reason for this too repugnant to discuss here but offers some insight into her detached attitude towards sex. A fortunate encounter with old boyfriend Yuki (Takashi Kawagichi) provides Jun respite from being hurt, his unconditional acceptance of her as a person the most kindness she has received in a long while.
As things feel good with Yuki, they get worse with her father and Jun knows it is only a matter of time before she has to burst Yuki’s bubble about his perception of her as a dream women. She dreads telling him she is tainted goods and fears his reaction – no man wants a whore for a girlfriend – but knows Yuki deserves honesty. And with her Tokyo life about to catch up with her again, Jun is back in despair.
There is no pretending this is an uplifting or aspirational film, Chauhan has gone as bleak as he could without being graphic in detailing the more unpleasant aspects of Jun’s mess of a life. The prevailing question is really who is to blame – Jun for being an ambitious young woman or men for being libidinous pigs? Jun’s dreams were shattered because she dared to dream; it could have been a jealous woman standing in her way but her worth to men is greater for the wrong reasons.
Chauhan doesn’t attack the hostess industry, the “extra services” left more as an implied allegation than a fact, albeit one with credence. He doesn’t need to, as this isn’t what the film is about, he is questioning the shallowness of the male gaze and women made to believe their stock is in their looks.
What makes the film hit hard with precision punches is the outstanding performance from Shuna Iijima. A chameleon like presence – stick thin and frail looking, a stunning glam hostess, fresh faced and enthusiastic to bruised, defeated, and self-loathing – Jun’s plight feels terrifying real because it feels like Iijima is being systematically destroyed before our very eyes for real.
If a film could claim to turn any woman into a feminist Bad Poetry Tokyo would be in the running, given how every one of Jun’s scars, visible or psychological, is caused by men. In a post #MeToo climate, this message is imparted with vitality and brutality, and should shame a rethink of attitudes in all of us.