Girlfriend, Someone Please Stop the World

Miho – “Everyone’s lonely
Kyoko – “Lonely and afraid

To some degree this summarizes much of the work of Ryuichi Hiroki over the past few years as he has become a poet of the disconnected in modern Japan. Isolated, lonely, alienated, Hiroki’s recent films burn with the internal pain of part of this generation lost among the babble of technology, consumerism and social consensus. His films lay bare the fearful insecurities, inability to connect and dark spaces in the lives of his characters like a sharp intrusive scalpel. Layer by layer, the characters are revealed – not as bad people – in fact often the opposite – but simply as unable to deal with the social vagaries of the modern world. They need so much to reach out and be touched emotionally by another person – to feel a bit of humanity in their lives but they find it nearly impossible to do so.

Vibrator (2003) was Hiroki’s first major incursion into this world with a basic story of two people having all their inner pain slowly spill out during a long truck ride. It’s a head deep dive into naked empty emotions. If Hiroki is the poet of the disconnected, his town crier is actress Shinobu Terashima. The daughter of legendary actress Junko Fuji, she was better known as a theatrical actress before Hiroki spotted her and felt she was the only actress who could play this part. Her performance is startling intense and one few mainstream actresses would have the courage to take on with its candid sex scenes and the intimate stripping of her soul. Her flat placid faces registers every blow her life has dealt her like a satellite receiver.
Rei (Terashima) has gone to a late night convenience store to buy some wine to deaden herself and her thoughts are jumbled fragments tumbling within – “I’m scared of people I can’t touch and I’m scared of people who don’t know how to touch”. She spots a man who has come in and thinks he is “tasty” and when he intentionally brushes by her with a light knowing feel of her hand she is electrified. She follows him outside and in a desperate need for contact and relief gets into his truck and has sex with him. It turns out that Takatoshi (Nao Omori) is a long distance freight hauler and on the spur of the moment she decides to go with him on his trip around Japan. In the confined space and safety of the truck and during the endless miles of road, their defenses slowly break down and in a sense they are cleansed of their sins. It ends on a tentatively hopeful note as she tells herself “The voices in my head are gone. I suppose they’ll be back but for now they are gone”. This film burns like injected truth serum.
Terashima returns in It’s Only Talk (2005), another journey into the urban alienated and disconsolate. This contains a more populated canvass than did Vibrator and that lessens to some degree that film’s laser intensity, but it is still a unblinking look at people who don’t fit into the image of Japan’s trendy and consumerist modern world. Hiroki’s films attempt to be so honest – it may take some shedding of the skin in getting there – but eventually the characters face in ungarnished terms who they are and their human limitations to move on. It’s not often kind or optimistic but extremely human.
Like her character in Vibrator, Terashima plays another fragile single female past society’s expiration date. Yoko suffers from manic depression and lives amongst her array of pills to pull her out of it and exaggerates the deaths of her parents and a friend (claiming it to be a 9/11 death) to give her life some dramatic weight and to excuse her mental imbalance. She has a fairly isolated existence in Tokyo living on her dead parent’s insurance payouts. Her one human contact appears to be literally with a “pervert” – a married man who gets together with Yoko to play out their fantasies such as going to porno theaters or public sex. One day she runs into an old classmate and takes him back to her apartment only to discover that he has his own issues – an inability to get an erection. Finally, it appears that perhaps her life can move forward when her male cousin ( Etsushi Toyokawa) needs to crash in her apartment and the two seem to fight through their insecurities to make a hopeful connection. In the end though this is only an ephemeral touch point and Yuko has to hold it together again. This is unrelenting in it’s depiction of aimless lost lives and Terashima gives a killing and painful performance.

In between these two films, Hiroki made L’Amant (2004), a controversial and somewhat distasteful film that harkens back to his Pink filmmaking days even if no explicit sex is actually shown. It approaches emptiness in a different manner when three middle-aged men contract with a seventeen year old girl to have sex with her for a full year. They all lay their own fantasies and sorrows on this girl and don’t even call her by her real name but instead refer to her as Hanako, the daughter of an absent friend. There is no salvation though found in the body of a young girl and by the end the men seem to have gotten much smaller in stature while the girl has managed to supersede them in terms of maturity. The film never successfully moves beyond its audacious and venal premise to explore deeper and more intimate issues of identity, gender, sexual power and alienation that seem inherent in the material.

As part of the “Love Collection” – a series of low budget films, Hiroki released Girlfriend, Someone Please Stop the World in 2004 (another entry in the series is the wonderfully funny “Moon and Cherry”). To some degree this is Vibrator light as it tackles some of the same issues but among two young women looking for something deeper in their lives than one night stands and work. It is a very slow moving film in which not a lot really occurs other than the bonding of these two women – but it is ultimately quite satisfying in a quiet slice of life fashion. I continue to be amazed that Japan seems to be the only film industry that can make these small wonderful female bonding films that feel so effortless and poignant – other examples being “Hana and Alice”, “Bounce Ko Gals” and “Kamikazee Girls”.

Kyoko (Kinuo Yamada) sees the world through her camera lens and clicks away endlessly in a way that puts distance between her and the life around her. She broke up with a boyfriend seven months previously and has filled the emotional hole with a series of drunken one night stands that have left her in a state of self-loathing and dissonance. She is able to find some photo work for a magazine that publishes nude female pictures – something Kyoko has been interested in shooting – but the catch is that the photographer has to scout and convince the women to do this. After many fruitless attempts, Kyoko comes upon Miho (Aoba Kawai) who has her own share of self-loathing oozing its way through her psyche. Her father (Tomorowo Taguchi) deserted her as a child and doesn’t even recognize her when she bumps into him. She is so full of anger that she tells Kyoko that perhaps by stripping away her clothes she can strip away some of her anger and the two of them embark on an emotional journey of photos and conversations that bring them closer and closer. Through this catharsis they both find solace and friendship and perhaps more. Rarely, has a chaste kiss felt so completely needed and perfect as the one in this film.

My Ratings:

Vibrator: 8.5
It’s Only Talk: 7.5
L’Amant: 5.5
Girlfriend, Someone Please Stop the World: 7.5

As an add on to this review I should make mention of another recent work from Hiroki so that people don’t assume that he is an embittered angry man with major issues (which he may be for all I know). He contributed one of the five short films in an omnibus simply called female (2005). All of them are pretty interesting and range from the erotic to the whimsical to the downright funny. Hiroki’s piece is titled “Drive Till You See the Sun“ and it is not only the best in the bunch but is in fact absolutely hilarious. It’s another female bonding film of sorts but under unusual and amusing circumstances. An over the hill hostess gets in a cab after her shift is over with exhaustion showing in her every facial line. The cab driver is a female as well – rather a stern sourpuss but she has reason as a young female punk is forcing her to pick up passengers to rob. She needs one million yen before the night is over to pay off her debts derived from her time spent in a host bar chasing after one man in particular. The hostess and the cab driver have their debts and problems as well and start to demand that the robber kill them and put them out of their misery. It all gets quite crazy as they complain about their lives, high speed it down the highway in a suicide attempt, all have the same musical hulu dream in a near death experience and then finish off the night in a collective pee. It’s terrific.