It’s Only Talk
- Original title
- Yawarakai Seikatsu
- Japanese title
- Running time
- 126 minutes
- 22 November 2005
by Tom Mes
Ryuichi Hiroki's path through the film world has been long and winding. It wasn't until 2003's astonishing Vibrator that the veteran pink filmer finally broke through both at home and on the festival circuit abroad. Making effective use of digital video and featuring a deeply moving, powerful central performance from Shinobu Terashima, it was a drama that depicted very real and very contemporary problems experienced by a female protagonist with very real and very contemporary emotions. The film had its finger on the pulse of what was happening with the thirty-something women of Japan, those who had rejected the lives led by their mothers, who defied the once anxiety-inducing prospect of reaching 'Christmas cake age', and for whom a career as an office lady seemed equally unappealing as being a housewife who spends her life having dinner alone while waiting for hubby to come home from the night out with the colleagues.
The biggest problem Terashima's character faced was the total absence of alternatives. The 'freeter' existence, living from one part-time job to another, holds no future and no prospects. The rejection of marriage brought a fear of commitment. What was the answer to the dilemma? Vibrator didn't give one, though Terashima found some salvation in the warm cabin of Nao Omori's Kanto-crossing truck.
Dilemmas that find no solution, like questions that remain unanswered, have the tendency to continue gnawing at you. They clearly kept nagging Hiroki, because with It's Only Talk he returns to familiar territory, Terashima in tow. And damn if he doesn't deliver another powerful, uncompromisingly intimate look at those problems. This time out, Terashima plays Yuko, another thirty-something, unemployed and mentally unstable urbanite. There are few constants in her life, one being the regular resurgence of deep depression. The others are formed by the three men she occasionally meets up with: Honma, a former study pal with a burgeoning political career and an erectile problem (Matsuoka), K., a married man she met on the net, who keeps his sexual urges from his wife (Taguchi), and Noboru, a manic depressive chinpira (Tsumabuki). Compared to this colourful trio, Yuko at first seems like the picture of self-assured independence, making the men jealous with tall tales of her past. But like the title says, it's only talk. No matter how cheerful her yarns, depression inevitably looms, tying her to her bed for days on end, where she subsists on mineral water and prescription drugs.
Then, one day, her cousin Shoichi (Toyokawa in the performance of a lifetime) appears on her doorstep. Though his slightly dated taste in leather jackets and convertibles clearly mark him out as a narcissistic country boy, his own tragedies - he left his family to be with his lover, who subsequently dumped him - help him connect with Yuko on some level. That he was the man to whom she lost her virginity contributes to their bond as well. Shoichi initially arrives looking for a place to crash, but when he finds out about Yuko's problems, he decides to stay and help her exorcise her demons. But bouts of shopping and karaoke with an immature, if well-meaning, show-off hardly make for the wonder drug that will cure Yuko's mental illness.
Adapted from Akiko Itoyama's novel by former Koji Wakamatsu and Tatsumi Kumashiro collaborator Haruhiko Arai (who wrote Woman with Red Hair - does it really come as a surprise that the filmmakers most in tune with women's issues in Japan come from erotic film backgrounds?), It's Only Talk reaches the dizzying heights of Vibrator and then some. This is powerhouse writing, directing, and acting, but in that self-effacing way that marks truly honest, human cinema. Shinobu Terashima has in two short years emerged as the leading actress of her generation, filling the gap left by the temporary absence due to ill health of that other true great, Reiko Kataoka (Hush!, A Drowning Man, Onibi), with whom she now stands eye to eye. Terashima has the almond eyes of her mother (1960s yakuza film star Junko Fuji), but in this film she eschews glamour entirely, going against the grain of Omotesando beauty whose paper-thin cutesy veneer has been so cultivated by TV dramas and fashion magazines that many in the world of cinema don't seem to know better. Instead she comes across as nothing less than true. Her puffy cheeks, unkempt hair, and Oxfam get-up at first may reek of Bridget Jones, but Hiroki's unflinching eye and Terashima's totally convincing descents into mental breakdown rip through the entire conceit with rare force. For Yuko there is no safety catch, no quirkiness to hide behind. It's Only Talk is not designed to help sell pop singles or cosmetics, nor is it constructed to make overweight women feel better about themselves. It is made to confront a problem that lies at the heart of a society, sparing us none of the discomfort, but still remaining wide open to the human, emotional basis of it all. The film remains terribly honest toward its subject, itself, and its viewers, giving us a two-hour look into the mixed-up mind of contemporary Japan and its drifting population of young urban unprofessionals.
At the same time, it is also a hymn to the outer-rim boroughs of Tokyo, here exemplified by Kamata, a place with "not an ounce of chic," as Yuko puts it in a voice over. Nevertheless, Hiroki's camera captures its hidden corners and small shops with a loving gaze, succeeding in catching its vibe and finding things worthwhile amid the dreadfully monotonous architecture of post-bubble urban Japan.
For all its many, many virtues, It's Only Talk's seemingly unassuming nature may well be its undoing. Such films usually tend to slip under the radar. It missed out on a selection for the Venice Film Festival in favour of safer fare, which will probably have repercussions further down the festival line, and thus - this not being of the genre film kind that comes with its built-in audience and marketing potential - on its chances of finding any kind of Western outlet. Calling for a DVD release every time a good yarn comes along can get wearisome, and there are only so many Japanese movies the market can handle, but can this film at least be seen? Because I have yet to come across a better film this year, Japanese or otherwise.