Call Me Chihiro (2023) by Rikiya Imaizumi

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.

On the Street (2020) by Rikiya Imaizumi

The film opens with Aoi Arakawa (Ryuya Wakaba) and his girlfriend Yuki (Moeka Hoshi) in the middle of breaking up. It is Yuki’s birthday, but after confessing to infidelity she confirms that she wants to split. Aoi works at a second-hand clothes store in Shimokitazawa, an area popular with young people. Fuyuko Tanabe (Kotone Furukawa), who works at a nearby bookstore, shows interest in him, but the inexperienced Aoi seems unable to pick up on such signals. A student film-maker, Machiko (Minori Hagiwara), a regular at his shop, asks him to appear in her project; a task which Aoi is singularly unsuited to, his acting proving so poor that he is cut from the finished film. After the filming he has a heartfelt conversation with Iha JoJo (Seina Nakata), a crew member on the production. Meanwhile, Yuki is regretting her decision to leave him.

“On the Street” is a slice-of-life drama about relationships, with lengthy conversations between characters. Writer-director Rikiya Imaizumi keeps the focus on these dialogues between Aoi, the women he encounters, and his friends. The naturalistic acting and realistic and relatable script provide a window into their worlds. With a mostly static camera, the film is almost documentary-like as we see coffee houses, music clubs, pubs, and apartments, and witness the everyday lives of the characters. Through these long takes we develop a familiarity with them, feeling as if we are simply hanging out with a group of regular people. The scene between Aoi and JoJo is one of the best moments of the film, as they sit and discuss various topics of little importance, just learning how to relate to one another. All of the actors do a great job, with their naturalistic performances in stark contrast to the terrible job Aoi does of acting in Machiko’s student film. “On the Street” is a film that you have to relax into without the expectation of any stunning revelation or melodrama. What the film instead provides is an insight into aspects of human relationships, along with some genuinely funny humour deriving from the characters and situations. In particular, the police officer who appears at times and begins on a bizarre unprompted confession about his personal life; and the scene in which there is a misunderstanding about who is dating who. There are also interesting artistic touches such as the mirroring of certain scenes, as between Aoi and Yuki at the beginning, a dynamic that is repeated later with Yuki and another character; and the reappearance of the police officer. These patterns and repetitions happen naturally, but suggest that there is order in the seeming chaos, or that the characters are bound to the same cycle of make-ups and break-ups, that their lives are a rhythmic flow rather than a monotonous drone.

“On the Street” is a film that emphasizes realism above all else. The conversation between Aoi and the coffee house owner, where they discuss the value of art, film, literature, and culture, makes this clear. It is never fully expressed what they mean by this, but there is a distinction implied between life and art. Similarly, in Machiko’s production we see Aoi completely unable to act a scene in which he simply has to read a book, an activity which he spends every day doing naturally. This is also evidenced in the fact that Aoi’s scene is eventually cut from the film, something that Tanabe takes offence to as she practiced the scene with him previously. If you are looking for a brilliant slice-of-life relationship drama, “On the Street” offers a relaxing watch, with great performances and a script that is relatable and full of humour.