The Japan Foundation returns to ICA this weekend for the final London engagements of this year’s touring film programme. To get you in the mood, the second of our event writeups looks at HER SKETCHBOOK, which screened with an Intro + Q&A with director Masaya Ozaki (02 FEB 2020).
By RADIANT CIRCUS
HER SKETCHBOOK aka Sekai wa kyo kara kimi no mono d. Masaya Ozaki, 2017:
Speaking with the help of a translator, screenwriter and director Masaya Ozaki introduced HER SKETCHBOOK as “a very small film… a personal film”. It takes as its central theme the phenomenon of hikikomori (aka ‘shut-ins’) in Japanese society. Hikikomori is/are (the term refers to both the phenomenon and the people) individuals who “refuse to leave their parents’ house, do not work or go to school and isolate themselves away from society and family in a single room for a period exceeding six months.” Estimates suggest some half a million youths and an equal number of people in their middle-age can now be categorised as hikikomori (source Wikipedia). Google (forever the film researcher’s trusted companion) reveals the further questions behind popular searches.
This warm-hearted, coming of age comedy with startling flecks of absurd drama – an attempted sexual assault, the siege of an office block – focuses on Mami, a young hikikomori retreating from life amidst the wasteland of her parents’ ruined relationship. She is rescued from isolation by her father – far from a highflier himself – who finds her a job as a bug tester in a video games studio. There, her talent for character design draws her ever more deeply out of her comfort zone and back into the wider world (with no help from her mum).
In his fascinating notes for the screening, Jasper Sharp argues that despite references to hikikomori in the subtitles and summary of the film (and indeed, throughout tonight’s Q&A…), a phrase often used in Ozaki’s original Japanese dialogue is NEET, or ‘Not in Education, Employment or Training’. Sharp argues this UK-derived term changes our understanding of the film’s perspective, with NEET inferring that “society is to blame for not providing the opportunities, nor indeed the incentives for its youth to play a productive role in society” whereas hikikomori “points the finger at the individual and their family for indulging them”. We’re not sure we agree fully with Sharp’s inference – at least not regarding the UK usage of NEET, where it remains a pejorative label for the young – but he also overlooks the apparently equal number of middle-aged hikikomori, a matter that prevents this from being a solely youthful phenomenon and returns us to the film and its middle-aged director…
After the screening, Ozaki spoke on stage with Junko Takekawa (Senior Arts Programmer, Japan Foundation London) about his own background as a shy and withdrawn young man and how contemporary issues of isolation, whatever their cause, connected with him at a profoundly personal level: “There’s a lot of me in this film.” Whilst he wasn’t a hikikomori, he was “similar” personality-wise, his own route out of isolation being a love of films that gave rise to eventual dreams of becoming a screenwriter and director.
Given his own personal relationship with the story and that an estimated 70% of shut-ins are male, Takekawa asked about why the film deals with a young woman. The film was made with the specific actor in mind – Mugi Kadowaki, with whom Ozaki had worked previously on TV series OMUKAE DESU (2016) – admitting he “wouldn’t have made the film without her.” HER SKETCHBOOK is therefore a story about “one girl finding her path in life” that reflects the director’s specialism in “comedy and entertainment rather than in writing about social problems per se”. Acknowledging that many small-scale films would pursue a more serious, dramatic telling of this story, Ozaki wanted to “go against that a bit, making a film on this scale, but an entertaining one.”
Facing a tough first question from the audience after such a sunny film, Ozaki was asked about a cynical malaise amongst certain hikikomori who have tooled their societal grievances into a rationale for violence: “should they deserve the same level of sympathy from the public?” The director explained his film wasn’t intended to address those challenges but to present the “fantasy” of a young woman finding herself through the discovery of her creativity. Another keen audience member spotted this creative awakening as an emerging theme in the director’s work (following his screenplay for TV series THE MAN WHO CAN’T GET MARRIED, 2006), something that Ozaki himself had noticed only after completing the more recent project.
From his own young dreams, the director’s creative journey started as a screenwriter – something he then convinced himself he was ideally suited to until he realised that “no one had decided that, that wasn’t set in stone”. After many years writing for the screen, he then made a “fresh start”, realising his ambitions to direct (HER SKETCHBOOK is his second feature after RANDEBÛ!, 2010). Asked about the challenges in making the transition from having once been a withdrawn younger man and the potential isolation of being a screenwriter, Ozaki saw directing as probably being more fun! Just don’t tell his mum:
“I said that my mum wasn’t a bad mum. That’s true, but when I said I wanted to be a film director, she was never supportive of that…. My experience of parents is that they are there to deny their children their dreams. The child’s job is to ignore that and to go on and achieve their dreams anyway.”
THE RADIANT CIRCUS VIEW:
The English meaning of the film’s original Japanese title is variously translated as “The world is yours from today” (by Sharp) and “The world is your oyster” (by Takekawa). Despite the troubling issues of societal collapse at its heart, HER SKETCHBOOK remains resolutely bathed in sunlit optimism that radiates out from the Mugi Kadowaki’s adorkable central performance. You wonder how anyone this awkward and fragile could possibly survive in our version of the real world, but that gently mirrors the sense of profound alienation that drives shut-ins to lock themselves away.
In what feels like an awkward misstep, a scene of predatory male behaviour is never significantly challenged, even when the oaf in question is further exposed as an exploitative charlatan. Where the comedy finds its target, is in the portrayal of Mami’s mother, a woman seemingly devoid of empathy who reinforces her daughter’s inadequacy (referencing, according to Takekawa, another Japanese cultural persona, that of the “poisonous mother”): “I was expecting something like this.”
HER SKETCHBOOK is a fascinating, fantastical account of how Japanese society has arrived at an intergenerational sense that everything has fallen down. Following an insightful onstage Q&A at the ICA, the film eventually reads like one of those self-improvement ‘letters to my younger self’, director Masaya Ozaki’s profoundly personal rumination on how creativity became his own path out of darkness.
And that’s the meat of it…
JAPAN FOUNDATION TOURING FILM PROGRAMME 2020
This year’s programme is full of mostly contemporary takes on Japanese culture and continues to be a popular draw (i.e. the events are selling fast!). With a couple of director Q&As and commissioned screening notes for each film, this really is a delightful season and one of our highlights of the start of every screen year. Read our RADIANT CIRCUS in-depth guide for more.
Japan Foundation Touring Film Programme 2020 – Happiness Is A State Of Mind: Joy & Despair In Japanese Cinema screens at ICA (31 JAN to 16 FEB) & around the country.
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