Those who attended the Osaka Asian Film Festival 2018 had the chance to see the latest work of Hitoshi Yazaki, Still Life of Memories. It seems Osaka has become a favourite place for the man because he attended OAFF 2019 with Afternoon Breezes. It has been 40 years since it was released and its original 16mm print has been digital remastered after a crowdfunding campaign. The film is a somewhat tragic tale of a one-sided lesbian romance. Due to its style and LGBT subject matter, it broke boundaries because it was one of the first openly gay-themed films in Japan. It put Yazaki on the map and earned him comparisons with important directors from avante-garde cinema movements of the 1960s and ‘70s like Chantal Akerman. In its black-and-white look and with its central protagonist who is disconnected from reality, it is sort of like Akerman’s Saute ma ville (1968) if you’ll allow the glib comparison
The story centres on Mitsu (Naomi Ito), a lovely hairdresser, and her roommate Natsuko (Aya Setsuko), a nursery-worker. The two live in an apartment somewhere in Tokyo and Natsuko holds deep feelings for Mitsu but they are never returned because the woman has a boyfriend named Hideo and one gets the sense that even without Hideo, there would be no attraction for Mitsu because, while Natsuko is a cute friend, she is clingy and moody and prone to reacting badly to anything that takes Mitsu’s attention away from her. In short, she is possessive and obsessive.
Audiences will clock Natsuko as a desperate type who hangs back and waits – waits for Mitsu to get the secret messages sent with each gift, the hidden intent behind each gesture, to ultimately understand the meanings of stares and smiles. Natsuko simply and agonisingly waits. Perhaps she luxuriates in the pain of an awkward, often unspoken, romance, too desperate to give up and too scared to proceed. Which is not to say Natsuko doesn’t try. It is just that her attempts are ambiguous and easily misinterpreted and even thwarted by circumstance or interference. As a result, Mitsu’s indifference hurts as seen in multiple scenes where props come into play or dialogue, and birthday gifts are given to the wrong person, conversations, spoken at a volume barely above a whisper, freeze whenever somebody else enters the frame and then there is Hideo whose presence Natsuko despises but she intends to use him in some form of nefarious mental jujitsu to make Mitsu break up with him.
The audience will be aghast at what she does but then this film is a portrait of obsession as we see Natsuko bask in her naive passion and love for Mitsu to the detriment of everything else. Although seemingly able to function as a human being, her behaviour becomes increasingly extreme.
When alone, Natsuko snakes around the tatami and under the table of their room and touches intimate items such as lipstick and clothes. When outside, Natsuko obsessively follows Mitsu and the film becomes about her daily sojourns into the Mitsu’s life and we see her disconsolate face either voyeuristically watching her friend at work or looking absolutely defeated whenever Hideo hogs the attention and is the one to be intimate with Mitsu. Setsuko rolls the audience along initially with her doe-eyed look that conveys a heartbreaking helplessness and innocence, but the relentlessness of her actions and the increasing hostility she exhibits to others and even herself becomes increasingly alarming. What makes it so tragic is the way she wraps her entire being into the things Mitsu would regard as banal.
We see Mitsu’s routine and understand her life is hardly fun and we also understand that Natsuko’s feelings are like the waves washing up against a cliff. Mitsu’s ideas are going to take her elsewhere. And so there is a tragedy to watching Natsuko behave in the way she does.
Yazaki knows this and films it in such a way. Long takes are used to show Natsuko in delirium or listlessness as she tries to navigate Mitsu’s waxing and waning attention. Weird angles and extreme close-ups catch her sinking into obsession as she watches the object of her desire and a soundtrack of relentless noise – that dripping tap! – drums up tension.
Yazaki also uses a beautiful piano score and city exploration sequences to show the quietly pretty everyday things that keep Natsuko going. Mitsu’s stylishness, her acts of care and kindness, moments spent together. When she and Mitsu have a rain-soaked walk from a station to a lilting piano tune and the sound of the soft rush of rain, well, that is something to behold. Through sound and vision, Yazaki captures Natsuko’s love and obsession. We understand why people fall in love. We understand Natuko and that is enough. Understanding. That is what films are so good at helping us do.
Afternoon Breezes was shown on March 13 at the Osaka Asian Film Festival.