Blindly in Love (Japan, 2013) [Japan Foundation Film Tour 2019]

Blindly in Love is a sensitive, understated commentary on not only the relationship between a young couple, but also the relationship between parents and children—and the tensions, obligations, joys, and sorrows that come with such a bond. The core of the film is a love story between a 35-year-old civil servant still living at home and a young, sheltered blind woman. It falters, particularly in the third act, and fails to fulfill all of its potential, but still leaves the viewer with a sense of who these characters are and how they have found (or tried to find) their place in the world.

Kentaro Amanozhizu (Gen Hoshino) is a dedicated civil servant, but one who’s still living in his childhood home with his parents at 35, with no desire to move out despite having the funds. He eats lunch alone every day at home before returning to his workplace, which he leaves each afternoon at five o’clock on the dot. He never socializes with others, and his only hobbies are playing video games and enjoying the company of his pet frog.

The stakes are high for the Amanoshizu family, as Kentaro is the only person who can carry on their unique family name. Kentaro’s parents attend a matchmaking event, hoping to set up a matchmaking interview, or miai. Kentaro and his parents meet with the parents of Kaoko (Kaho), a young blind woman. The interview is a disaster. As the families sit across from each other, the table between them feels like an uncrossable chasm. Kaoko’s father insists that Kentaro, who’s never been promoted even after 13 years of hard work, could never support his daughter or provide the “special assistance” that she needs. He compares her to an elderly person who needs help. “Do you want me to feel sorry for her?” Kentaro shoots back, attempting to dismantle her father’s (quite literal) paternalism.

If you’re looking for an authentic portrayal of disability featuring a strong blind woman, you will be disappointed. I would advise you to look elsewhere, as the blind woman is portrayed as fragile, delicate, and with no career of her own. Always clad in white, she is portrayed as innocent, with little agency. It would have been wiser to choose a blind actress, but the push for disability representation had not gained as much traction in 2013, the year of the film’s release. However, this stereotypical portrayal of blindness may have less to do with Japanese attitudes towards the blind (consider the thoughtful portrayal of empowered blind people advocating for their own accessibility needs in Naomi Kawase’s 2017 film Radiance) and more to do with the themes of the film, one of which is the effect of “helicopter” or “snowplow” parenting. Naoko is sheltered because her parents, particularly her father, have raised her that way.

While the terminology of “helicopter” and “snowplow” parenting only exists in English, the original Japanese title of this movie omits any reference to blindness and instead refers to the love of a “boxed son”, or hakoirimusuko. This draws from the idea of a “boxed daughter,” a daughter kept in the home until marriage. According to Kittredge Cherry in Womansword: What Japanese Words Say About Women, “Most people still consider the phrase a compliment that suggests the loving protection with which parents raise their girls. However, the boxed daughter is beginning to acquire a negative image as a painfully shy girl who doesn’t know how to do anything besides sit prettily within the confines of a boxlike Japanese home and value system.” The protagonist of this movie is certainly in a box, but it’s one of his and his parents’ own making. The camera angles and mise-en-scène support this, as the camera literally crowds in on Kentaro as he’s switching his nerdy glasses for contact lenses, his parents and nosy neighbor hovering the whole time.

Kentaro begins to break out of this box when, despite their rocky start, Kaoko and Kentaro begin seeing each other behind her father’s back but with her mother’s blessing. It is exhilerating to see their relationship blossom, as two people figure out how to fall in love for the first time, on their own terms, in their own way. There are wonderful scenes of their budding relationship. Kentaro, who’s begun eating with his coworkers, takes Kaoko to his favorite ramen restaurant for their special ramen. He shows her how he is able to imitate the sound that his pet frog makes. Through taste, touch, and sound, he connects with her on her own terms. He is willing to go to great lengths to protect her, but he also treats her as a person–not a blind person. His personality begins to come through, but outside forces make things hard for him and Kaoko.

The movie includes great moments of comedy that highlight the problems Kentaro’s family faces, but the inclusion of Kentaro’s female coworker and a line about Kaoko’s father’s infidelity feel more at home in a soap opera and detract from the central plot–that of Kentaro and Kaoko. Kentaro changes, finding a measure of happiness with Naoko despite obstacles, but it would have been nice to see Naoko change more. Naoko is always seen using sighted guide and is only seen walking independently with a cane at the end, which shows her growing independence, but it would been interesting to see her grow more empowered throughout. Though her relationship with her mother is shown, it would have also been interesting to see more of her interactions with her father, just as Kentaro is shown interacting with both his parents. Frustratingly, Kaoko never stands up to her father, who proves to be a continued hindrance to her relationship with Kentaro. Still, the pair is compelling and relatable.

When Naoko’s father inevitably finds out about her relationship with Kentaro, in the beginning of the third act, things take a downward turn for both the couple and the narrative as a whole. Viewers may find it harder and harder to suspend their disbelief as the movie descends into overblown melodrama and ruins many of the promises of the first hour with its implausibility. Still, the movie’s core themes remain the same, and it proves to be an enjoyable viewing experience.

Blindly in Love is part of the Japan Foundation Film Touring Programme 2019, which is showing at selected UK venues from February 2 to March 28.