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Female anxiety shot from every angle

by Mark Schilling

The Japanese film industry used to be like much of the rest of Japanese society: male-centered and male-run. It made plenty of movies about women and for women, but their directors were all men. That began to change when Naomi Kawase won a Cannes Camera d’Or prize in 1997 for her first feature, “Moe no Suzaku (Suzaku),” but for a long time she headed a very short list of female directors here.

In the past decade or so, however, that list has expanded dramatically, while the impact of women behind the camera has grown beyond mere numbers: Directors such as Miwa Nishikawa, Momoko Ando, Yuki Tanada and Yang Yong-hi have made some of the best recent Japanese films, judging by the awards, festival invitations and critical praise they’ve received.

Ayumi Sakamoto now joins the ranks of these directors with “Forma,” her first feature after a long apprenticeship under indie director Shinya Tsukamoto. Since winning the best picture award in the Japanese Cinema Splash section of Tokyo Film Festival in 2013, this drama of female revenge has won additional awards at festivals in Berlin and Hong Kong, and was invited to the Nippon Connection festival in Frankfurt.

Stylistically, “Forma” fits the profile of a stereotypical minimalist Asian festival film: It’s 145 minutes long, with no close-ups, no music, no narration and several lengthy one-cut scenes, culminating in one that unspools for 24 minutes from the perspective of a fly on the wall, in the form of a camcorder.

This may sound like indie aestheticism at the expense of the audience, and, truth be told, I was anticipating a long sit as the film began. But working from her original treatment, scripted by Ryo Nishihara, Sakamoto melds style and story with a sure feel for how form expresses meaning, while her view of the film’s two protagonists — or rather antagonists — is at once distanced and informed.

I don’t mean that “Forma” is in any way autobiographical, only that Sakamoto knows and sees her principals in ways that escape the usual male filmmaker, viewing his female characters mostly in relation to the men around them or their families, less often to each other, be it as friends or enemies.

Ayako (Nagisa Umeno) runs into former high school classmate Yukari (Emiko Matsuoka) on a construction site where Yukari is working as a security guard. Despite the passage of time, Ayako is eager to connect again and even helps Yukari land a job at her company. Yet once Yukari starts work as a copy-making, tea-serving clerk, her higher-ranking colleague Ayako is quick to point out her mistakes and upbraid her for her “too informal” language.

Ayako still wants to be pals with Yukari outside the office, but her familiarity — it’s hard to call it friendship — takes the form of needling or outright undermining. Hearing that Yukari is engaged to be married, Ayako tells her that “marriage is no guarantee of happiness” and chides her for “just going with the flow.” “You haven’t changed since high school,” she concludes, dismissively. What, we wonder, is really going on here?

Yukari, it turns out, was Ayako’s senpai (senior) in their high school tennis club and bossed her about. Now the shoe, Ayako notes, is on the other foot. But she wants more than petty payback for ancient slights. Also, it soon becomes clear that Yukari, who changes her mind and plans on flimsy pretexts, is no angel either.

As the story progresses, we see that none of the characters are. All have flaws, even Nagata (Seiji Nozoe), a coffee-shop server who selflessly comes to Yukari’s aid and seems be the nicest of nice guys. But when the two frenemies finally take the gloves off, that niceness is revealed as a cover for weakness. Also, Ayako’s video-editor father (Ken Mitsuishi) may seem to be the quiet, even-keeled sort, but as his reasons for separating from Ayako’s mom are revealed, we see him in a new, more morally compromised light.

The story, in its bald outline, may sound like a recipe for a black comedy: “Mean Girls” comes to Japan. “Forma,” however, is serious — and frightening. That crucial 24-minute scene may be a daring experiment in improvisation, but it is also bone-chilling. Instead of conventionally building to this big finale, the film detours for a lengthy flashback that, at first, feels like a puzzling distraction, but gives the events in the film a new weight and urgency.

Who is in the right? Who is in the wrong? Sakamoto doesn’t supply easy answers. Like the best poets, she stirs the imagination, but allows for more than one interpretation. Is that the hand of friendship reaching out — or a fist, gripping a knife?


Fun fact: Born in 1981 in Kumamoto Prefecture, Ayumi Sakamoto came to Tokyo with a dream of becoming a film director. Before making her feature debut with “Forma” she directed everything from music videos to documentaries.