Aristocrats (2020) by Yukiko Sode

Two women from different social classes become romantically involved with the same man in this feminist fable. Hanako Haibara (Mugi Kadowaki) is the daughter of a doctor whose recent separation from her fiance is met with disappointment by her family. Her friends and parents begin to set her up on a series of blind dates, one of which, arranged by her brother-in-law, is with the charming Koichiro Aoki (Kengo Kora). Hanako falls immediately for Koichiro and the two soon arrange to be married. However, she discovers that he is having an affair with a woman named Miki Tokioka (Kiko Mizuhara). Miki is from a working class family, but studied at the prestigious Keio University where she met Koichiro. Through a mutual aquaintance, Hanako and Miki meet one another to discuss what to do, a meeting that gives them both pause to think about their lives and how they have been impacted by Koichiro.

Based on Mariko Yamauchi’s novel, “Aristcrats” is almost two parallel films that play out with little overlap. The film is chaptered, with alternate chapters following Hanako and then Miki. The novel was serialised in a monthly magazine, and director Yukiko Sode allows the narrative to play out in an unhurried way that draws us into the lives of the two protagonists. The two women only meet twice in the whole film, for brief scenes, but this parallel structure allows us to contrast and compare their lives and choices. The cinematography gives a sense of wealth and luxury, with many high-class locations shown to best advantage, brightly lit with little movement reflecting the characters’ stiff social niceties. The classical score by Takuma Watanabe further emphasises this sense of an upper-class sensibility. The elegant surroundings of Hanako’s life, with expensive restaurants, jazz clubs, and summer retreats, are in stark contrast to the conditions of Miki’s life, her disorganized working-class home very different to the sterile environs of Hanako’s world. Mugi Kadowaki’s Hanako is a character who is trapped in a gilded cage, with few concerns about money; she is instead troubled by not living up to her family or husband’s expectations, her lack of a child, and perceived lateness in getting married. Both Kadowaki and Kiko Mizuhara give fantastic performances as women forced to follow social norms against their wills. The women are rarely confronted by serious problems, but the mundane, everyday sexism they face builds an incredible pressure that shapes the way they look at the world. Their friends, Itsuko and Rie, played by Shizuka Ishibashi and Rio Yamashita, are also interesting characters, representing women who are emancipated from the expectations of people around them. They offer a fun counter-point to the protagonists, being forthright in their determination to follow their own path in life rather than that set out for them by others.

“Aristocrats” offers an interesting look at the class divide in Japanese society, drawing a clear distinction between those fortunate enough to be born to wealthy families, living a life of afternoon teas and country homes; and those at the lower end of the income scale, who struggle for everything they have. Despite the difference in background, Hanako and Miki both face similar problems as women: the pressure to marry and have children, the expectation that they will submit themselves to their husband or partners will, and in short that they are there as little more than window dressing for the men around them (as Miki spells out to Itsuko during their conversation). Both women are trapped by circumstance, forced into societal obligations and unable to make their own decisions. Both have a friend who displays an alternative way of life. Hanako’s friend Itsuko is an independent woman, travelling the world playing violin, who shows little interest in settling down; while Miki’s friend Rie, dreams of starting her own business, and not being bound by the financial constraints that have bedevilled Miki. At heart the film is about finding freedom and making your own choices. It’s stark depiction of rigid morality seems out of place in the modern world, and the film’s commentary on these outdated beliefs provides a powerful indictment of the patriarchal system that persists in modern society. An enjoyable film with great central performances that depicts the reality for a lot of women while offering hope that things could be different and are perhaps changing, albeit slowly.

Snakes and Earrings (2008) by Yukio Ninagawa

A young woman becomes fascinated by the idea of body modification after a chance encounter at a club. Lui (Yuriko Yoshitaka) meets Ama (Kengo Kora) at a nightclub and is immediately intrigued by his punk style, dyed hair, piercings, tattoos, but most of all his split tongue. He offers to take her to his friend Shiba (Arata Iura) who runs a tattoo and piercing parlour. Lui decides that she will get her tongue pierced, with the intention of achieving a split tongue (a painful process involving increasingly large tongue studs), and also a tattoo. On their first meeting, Shiba tells her that her innocent appearance turns him on as he is slightly sadistic. Lui says that she is masochistic and it is not long before the two are involved in a sexual affair that they keep secret from Ama. Things are further complicated when Ama beats up a gangster who harasses them in the street and Lui decides to protect him from the law.

Based on the novel by Hitomi Kanehara, with a  screenplay by Takuya Miyawaki and director Yukio Ninagawa, “Snakes and Earrings” gives us a look at disaffected youth in Tokyo and the subculture of those who enjoy body modification. The plot takes a back seat to the emotional themes, that of a young woman trying to find some meaning in her life. Yuriko Yoshitaka’s Lui is a woman who seems completely numb to the world around her, distant from her parents and with few friends, lost in a sea of banal corporate culture. Kengo Kora’s Ama is easily the most sympathetic character, his rough punk appearance hiding a kind-hearted soul. Arata Iura’s mysterious Shiba appears as the agent of chaos between the two, seen largely in his denlike studio where he is the master of his domain. The small supporting cast features an appearance from Tatsuya Fujiwara as the yakuza, but the focus is on the three leads and their tortuous love triangle. The film’s guerrilla style filmmaking, shot on the streets of Shibuya help give the sense of a living world, pulling us in to the bustling city teeming with life. The majority of the story takes place in a limited number of sets, including the tattoo parlour and Ama’s apartment, which helps to keep the story focussed. There is not much of a plot, but the relationships between the three leads are intriguing and exciting enough, the sex scenes are not explicit but get across the power relationship and mix of brutality and sensualism in their lovemaking. The melancholic score of piano and strings resonates with this downbeat, nihilistic atmosphere.

“Snakes and Earrings” begins and ends with Lui in Shibuya, the camera whirling around to look at the various billboards and company logos, all the while in absolute silence. It is the perfect way to express her complete disillusionment with the world. This is a young woman who has completely checked out, nothing excites or motivates her. The sado-masochism and body piercing is the perfect metaphor for that desire to simply feel something, anything in the world, even if it is painful. The pain she experiences helps her to connect with people for the first time in a long time. We learn that she is not in contact with her family and her relationship with her friend seems superficial.  Not all of the film is as easy to analyse as the central theme of finding a sense of self expression and fulfilment in a meaningless culture that strips us of our humanity. There are themes of sex and violence, as you may expect, but also ideas of death that are harder to reconcile with Lui’s story. It is a downbeat story with a compelling portrayal of someone who seems to have hit rock bottom attempting to feel something for the first time in a long time.