Chihiro (Kasumi Arimura) is a former sex-worker now employed at a street bento shop, where her previous profession makes her popular with their male clients. Being estranged from her own family, Chihiro’s upbeat demeanour leads to a series of friendships with people she meets. Firstly, an elderly homeless man whom she rescues from gang of children; a young boy Makoto (Tetta Shimada), whose single-mother is rarely home to care for him; Okaji (Hana Toyoshima), a schoolgirl who finds her formal family life stultifying and unsatisfactory. Chihiro’s older friendships include her surrogate mother Tae (Jun Fubuki), the blind wife of the bento shop owner who she is visiting in hospital; Basil (Van), a singer at a show pub; and her former boss (Lily Franky). Through these connections, Chihiro discovers the value of friendship and the true meaning of family.
Based on a manga by Hiroyuki Yasuda, “Call Me Chihiro” is a quiet character study of several lonely individuals, who stitch together for themselves a surrogate family, bound by their mutual feelings of isolation or abandonment. The cast do a wonderful job bringing these characters to life, with their nuanced stories all brought together by the central theme of loneliness. Kasumi Arimura’s Chihiro is burdened by her estrangement from her family, and unknown difficulties in her past, but putting a brave face on it. Her charisma masks a deep sadness and Arimura’s performance perfectly captures this shimmering surface hiding darker truths. The supporting cast are all exceptional, and a sequence late in the film when they enjoy a rooftop meal together brings home the extent to which they manage to build up genuine connection with each other and the audience. Rikiya Imaizumi’s relaxed direction, often framing the dialogues simply and allowing the actors to perform without distraction, helps build a sense of realism and emotional realism. The script grows organically from the interactions between the characters, slowly pulling together their stories and the similarities between them becoming evident as things progress. We don’t discover much about Chihiro’s past life, aside from a tense phone call with her brother regarding their mother’s death and a few flashbacks; similarly the script and performances succeed in giving lots of information about the characters without explicitly stating it (one example of this is in Okaji’s family dinner scenes, which show the relationships and attitudes of every member of the family through an everyday situation).
“Call Me Chihiro” explores the idea of social isolation, with many characters commenting on Chihiro’s loneliness. Despite her apparently being personable and making friends easily, she remains distant from those around her, struggling to make genuine connections. Food plays an important part in the film as a symbol of affection. Makoto’s hunger when he is locked out of his apartment; Okaji’s emotionless family meals; Chihiro’s enjoyment of solitary meals, all take on a deeper significance when considering the character’s need for love or lack of it. This link between food and love is well done, connecting together several of the stories without being an overly forced metaphor. The film also raises the idea of individuals as permanently isolated, suggesting that humans are aliens from diverse planets inhabiting similar physical forms. Only those lucky enough to find a soul from the same planet are able to find true companionship, with the rest doomed to live out a life in which they are never fully able to relate to others. You can choose your friends, but you can’t choose your family, is the central premise of the film, with Chihiro finally accepting her assumed name over her birth name Aya Furusawa, symbolising her determination to be the person she wants to be and to seek out meaningful relationships rather than societally obligated ones.