- Original title
- Sutoroberri Shotokeikusu
- Japanese title
- Running time
- 127 minutes
- 18 January 2008
by Paul Spicer
Sometimes, cinema can be a daunting experience. Most filmmakers ask of us to enter their world and join them on a journey. In reality, when we watch a film our senses and feelings are in their hands, handing to them our most precious emotional qualities. So, where more often than not we can leave a cinema feeling exhilarated and content, it is just as easy for us to watch something that not only challenges the emotions, but also allows us to reflect upon ourselves and the lives we lead.
Hitoshi Yazaki's 2006 picture Strawberry Shortcakes is a film that certainly falls into the latter category. With a mix of desperation, resignation, and above all hope (the film's metaphorical theme), we are led along as the lives of four twenty-something females are played out before us. The film's mix of loneliness and emptiness in an environment where people, largely, do not care for each other, coupled with lead characters that we, as the narrative progresses, genuinely grow to care for, makes for a film which, although at times emotionally challenging to watch (purely for its representation of reality), is full of hope and optimism.
Yazaki is no stranger to creating bleak and desperate worlds within his filmmaking. His first picture Afternoon Breezes (Kaze-tachi no Gogo, 1980) dealt with despair and sexuality, as well as relationships, not just between lovers, but people in general, and was a respectable debut. It told the story of personal obsession and the problem - it could be argued, the Japanese problem - of not being able to express one's feelings. Natsuko falls in love with her flatmate, Mitsu. Unable to tell her, Natsuko sets out to destroy Mitsu's relationship by sleeping with her boyfriend and becoming pregnant with his child. Strawberry Shortcakes deals with similar issues, the similar problem of socially versus personally controlled feelings are again evident; this time however, represented in a more refined and subtly honed manner. Yazaki resists any temptation to overblow the film's more sensitive situations, which leads to a well paced, emotional and at times almost fly-on-the-wall account of life in an uncaring and unfeeling city.
The story revolves around four professional women living in Tokyo. Satoko (Ikewaki) and Akiyo (Nakamura) are work colleagues, employed by the Heaven's Gate escort agency as receptionist and escort respectively. Office Lady Chihiro (Nakagoshi) and freelance artist Toko (Iwase) share a flat but in terms of the narrative, the girls are split into two pairs with Satoko and Akiyo unaware of Chihiro and Toko and vice versa. In terms of personality, the four girls are represented as vastly different people, but this is clever character development by Yazaki because as the characters are allowed to naturally grow, we see that not only are they similar in terms of aspirations and dreams, but in terms of how empty their lives are. This emptiness is highlighted during initial conversations between the women. Akiyo asks Satoko, "Do you think there is a God"? We then get a repeat scene involving the other two girls with Toko asking the same question to Chihiro. This is where the film begins to cleverly establish connections between all four women.
Indeed, God is a theme that repeats itself throughout and is represented within the film by a rock, a painting, relationships, and a packet of cigarettes. Of course the film is too clever to be so obvious and as the narrative progresses it is clear that Yazaki is manipulating the term as a metaphor for hope, something that you can depend on. Chihiro describes that a god, for her, is a boyfriend; Satoko finds god as a rock (which she thinks could be part of a fallen comet), and prays to it asking for her wishes to come true. Toko's god comes in the form of a painting, of God, on which she is currently working. These kind of metaphorical references are also further realised in a scene where Satoko stops to buy cigarettes, ('Hope' brand of course) the vending machine has run out, to which she states, "There is no Hope", however substituting the word for the cigarettes with the Japanese word kibo (literally wishing for something better). This kind of subtlety is littered throughout the film and creates an amazing blend of realism and surrealistic positivity.
As well as the simple but often clever narrative, what really does stand out from watching Strawberry Shortcakes are the performances of the actors, especially the four protagonists. Conversations are natural, responses are as you would expect not from watching a film, but from a documentary picture. It really is superbly played from beginning to end. Examples of this are strong throughout with many scenes shot almost as if from the perspective of a voyeur, something which makes the experience all the more uncomfortable. Chihiro's relationship with young office worker Nagai is a good case in point. Although things start well between the two, it is soon realised that Chihiro is looking for something that she will not find, and as this part of the story unfolds we begin to see a desperation as she goes through nightmarish relationship scenarios. It is obvious it is coming, however it is the brutality with which it hits us that is really spectacular here.
Based on a manga by Kiriko Nananan and with a screenplay written by Kyoko Inukai, the film retains the essence of the manga in terms of the depiction of the women involved and the atmosphere created. Stories are simple tales but are interwoven with care and laced with a sense of desperation, at times dread. With the screenplay, the director has turned to somewhat of a novice with Inukai's previous works, limited but including a co-credit for Tetsuo Shinohara's Heaven's Bookstore (Tengoku no Honya: Koibi, 2004).
It is also important here to mention the contribution to the film by Nananan. As well as creating the original story, she also plays the role of Toko under her acting name of Toko Iwase. A real-life friend of the director, with limited acting experience, (a commercial for Yakuyou Myuzu and performances in independently produced short films), she was approached by Yazaki who proposed that she played the part of Toko in the film. At first she refused, concerned that she did not have enough experience as an actress. Yazaki however insisted that she take the part. It is at times difficult to believe that this is her first major role; Iwase's performance is one of tragic grace. Her struggle with bulimia, her sacrifice for her art, and her manner throughout, is heartbreaking but truly stunning.
Yazaki deserves huge credit for this film, it is superbly directed, the soundtrack is pitch-perfect, and used exactly when needed, and the choice of the fairly unknown and inexperienced cast members appears to have paid off. Whether it was a huge gamble on his part, it has added enormously to the film and what we get is a beautiful, exhilarating, but tragic contemporary tale. We all need hope in some form or another, whether it be a rock, a painting, or a packet of cigarettes. Strawberry Shortcakes shows us that there are times we need to suffer before this can be achieved.