For decades, Japanese society has held that the trinity of marriage, childbirth and a house in the suburbs is the fast track to women’s fulfillment. Filmmaker Yukiko Mishima, however, disagrees.

“Most Japanese women are simply conditioned to think that way,” she says. “While marriage, children and the house could all be wonderful things, they’re not for everyone. I think that more Japanese women should have their own individual standards of what happiness is.”

Mishima’s latest endeavor is “Shape of Red” (Simply titled “Red” in Japan)” — a turbulent, sensual and ultimately pensive story of a young woman who ostensibly has it all, yet cannot stop herself from wanting something else. In this case, that thing is a passionate affair with her college boyfriend, which opens a Pandora’s box of repressed desires and career ambitions.

Adapted from Rio Shimamoto’s 2014 novel, “Red,” Mishima’s film belies the notion that marriage and stability are all that a woman could want, as the protagonist, Toko, struggles to break free from that same stability.

“I have a feeling that it’s all systemic. In Japan, marriage doesn’t imply a joining of two individuals, but the woman joining a man’s family and becoming part of his household,” Mishima says. “Perhaps if women were allowed to keep their last names it would be different, but I don’t see that happening in a hurry.”

Mishima, 50, adds that the particular way women are educated in Japan, coupled with a culture of shame, is also of concern.

“We are taught not to impose, make waves or be a burden on anyone,” she says. “And when we slip up, we are taught to be ashamed of having stood out by making a mistake.”

Mishima says she never aspired to achieve “the trinity,” instead wanting to be a filmmaker as far back as she can remember. She made her first film as a student at Kobe College with money she saved from a variety of part-time jobs. After graduation, she began making documentaries for public broadcaster NHK, but then left the company and came out with her first feature film, “The Tattooer” (“Shisei: Nihohi Tsuki no Gotoku”), in 2009.

Mishima is often asked whether her name is a pseudonym — it’s actually her birth name, given by her father, who was an avid fan of celebrated author Yukio Mishima. She is one of a select few female filmmakers in Japan whose work has been shown at international film festivals.

Modern thinking: Filmmaker Yukiko Mishima has never aspired to traditional gender roles. | SATOKO KAWASAKI
Modern thinking: Filmmaker Yukiko Mishima has never aspired to traditional gender roles. | SATOKO KAWASAKI

Mishima’s best known feature, “Dear Etranger” (known in Japan as “Osanago Warera ni Umare”), won the Special Grand Prix of the Jury award at the Montreal World Film Festival in 2017. Meanwhile, “Shape of Red” is set to be shown at the Chicago International Film Festival in October.

“I’ve always wanted to tell stories and, for me, the best medium for that was film,” says Mishima. “When I take on a project, I’m already fascinated by the characters — what they’re thinking, how they fit into society and what it all means. I guess I’m intensely interested in the world and in life.”

Mishima says that when making “Shape of Red” she realized how much Japanese women allow themselves to be influenced by society or, as she says, “the stares of other people.”

“Women are so worried about what other people think about them,” she says. “They should actually be asking themselves who they really are, or what they want out of life. Instead, they’re second-guessing people’s opinions about them. That may work to a certain extent but, inevitably, there comes a time when a woman must face her own self.”

And that goes some way to explaining the plot of “Shape of Red.”

Toko (played by Kaho Indo, better known by just her given name) is living what her friends refer to as a “flawless life,” with a handsome husband, an adorable young daughter and a rather nice home. Inwardly, though, Toko is struggling with a discontent that turns into an undeniable passion when she runs into Akihiko Kurata (Satoshi Tsumabuki), her college boyfriend from a decade earlier. Akihiko and Toko embark on an affair that threatens to destroy not only Toko’s marriage, but the very fabric of her identity.

Toko had believed herself to be a good wife and loving mother, but nothing in her home life seems to make sense anymore. She also discovers how different Akihiko is from her husband, Makoto (Shotaro Mamiya). Akihiko treats her like a flesh-and-blood woman with carnal desires and career ambitions, while Makoto seems to want to keep her caged. While Makoto is dead set against his wife having an income of her own, Akihiko invites Toko to work at his firm. There, Toko meets Akihiko’s snarky colleague, Atsushi Odaka (Tasuku Emoto), who tries to seduce Toko and threatens to expose her affair. Inexplicably, Toko finds herself drawn to Atsushi as well. While trying to navigate the murky terrain of lust, lies and cover-ups, Toko discovers that Akihiko is hiding a secret of his own.

Nothing is simple: Toko, played by Kaho, experiences a crisis of identity after she embarks on an affair with a former boyfriend in 'Shape of Red.' | © 2020 'RED' SEISAKU IINKAI
Nothing is simple: Toko, played by Kaho, experiences a crisis of identity after she embarks on an affair with a former boyfriend in ‘Shape of Red.’ | © 2020 ‘RED’ SEISAKU IINKAI

Mishima says that she wanted to present “Shape of Red” as a cross between a “love story for the ages, and a Japanese version of Henrik Ibsen’s 1879 play ‘A Doll’s House.'”

When Shimamoto’s novel came out in 2014, many readers were incensed by Toko’s behavior and enraged that she would leave her young daughter at home to enjoy a tryst with Akihiko in a hotel room.

“That was exactly the sort of attitude that caused Toko to suffer (in the first place),” says Mishima. “I imagine it’s the same for many women in Japan — we’re not allowed to be individuals because very few of us are encouraged to think for ourselves. And though the controversy over the novel focused on the sexual side of the affair, Toko appreciated Akihiko for much more than that. He was always observing her, talking to her, asking what she was thinking. That was something her husband never did in their relationship, because he only saw Toko as a mother and wife.”

Unfortunately, this social phenomenon is well-documented in Japan.

“Akihiko is that very rare man who asks a woman some difficult questions — how she wants to live her life, what she wants in a relationship, what her dreams are,” Mishima says. “Toko is forced to come up with answers by taking a long, hard look at herself. It is unnerving for her, but it is also liberating.”

Mishima goes on to say that she is also aware of the virtues of the Japanese style of communication.

“I’m Japanese, so I’m used to people withholding their opinions. I’m also comfortable with stepping back to let other people do the talking,” she says. “I don’t think laying everything out in black and white is the only effective means of communication, but I do feel that it’s time the Japanese struck a balance. To shift the focus a little away from the ‘we,’ and bring it closer to the ‘I.’ We’re also so used to thinking in terms of ‘us and them,’ which is why so many people find it hard to accept diversity. But we have to change. Toko realizes this in the film, and it’s one of the defining moments in the story.”

Mishima says she feels blessed when it comes to the film’s cast — particularly the two leads.

“There’s something very innocent about Kaho, which links directly to the innocence of Toko,” Mishima says. “She had led a very sheltered life, and when she meets Akihiko again, it’s as if the walls of her self-imposed prison come crumbling down.

She says Tsumabuki is wonderful in the role of Akihiko, too.

“I find the character very attractive because he’s under so much pressure, but in spite of that he’s always thinking about how he can benefit Toko,” Mishima says. “For him, this isn’t just a fling, he wants to take responsibility for the person she’s trying to become. Akihiko is such great love story material. Actually, they both are. I loved watching this couple, and turning their relationship into something very dense and moving.”

“Shape of Red” opens in cinemas nationwide on Feb. 21. For more information, visit redmovie.jp.

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