Body Remember (Japan, 2020) [SF IndieFest 2021]

A trend in recent Japanese indie films is the use of self-reflexive stories that prompt both the characters and the audience to constantly interrogate what is real. Body Remember, the directorial debut by actor Keita Yamashina, is one such example as it blurs the lines between dream, reality, and fantasy from start to finish in a playful adventure in interpretation as experienced by an artist and writer committing to the page a sultry woman’s murky past.

Told through a series of nested stories, Body Remember opens with a bang as we gaze upon the aftermath of a double-shooting which has resulted from a love triangle gone tragically wrong. We watch as the history of this compelling scene is recounted by a sexy woman named Yoko (Yume Tanaka) in an interview with her cousin, a young novelist named Haruhiko (Takaya Shibata), and his artist girlfriend Ririko (Momoka Ayukawa) at a cafĂ©. This is the present-tense narrative from which flashbacks emerge. She relates a tale of friends who fell out over her, the details of which Yoko’s two listeners intend to turn into a novel. 

Three year’s previously Yoko was married to laconic bar owner Akira (Yohei Okuda). One night, Akira’s best friend, suave lawyer Jiro (Ryuta Furuya), re-enters their lives after a long absence. A long absence for Akira, that is. Yoko and Jiro had kept in touch and it is eventually revealed they had a relationship at one point. While the three friends initially seem excited to be reunited, a sense of tension soon emerges as the two men revisit their past, dredge up the darkness of their private lives, and circle around Yoko who feels trapped between the two and subject to their passions which seem to have led to the scandalous murder at the start of the film.

Their scintillating drama would provide prime material for an airport novel at the very least. However, the truth of what exactly happened is constantly in question. Almost immediately, any expectations of a simple recitation of a sordid history is made both complicated and intriguing because Yoko delivers her narrative in a dreamy manner that suggests she might be an unreliable narrator. More tellingly, we are also aware that what we view on screen in the flashbacks are moments taken from Haruhiko’s novel due to the opening scene of the shooting fading directly into the manuscript he is typing. As we watch the flashbacks, we see that his interpretation lends events a noir-like spin, enhanced by flashback mise-en-scene (shadows and moody lighting), score (shambling trumpets and shimmering cymbals) and in the performance as Yoko behaves a little like a femme fatale while the two men increasingly seem like jealous lovers fated to die.

The film’s blurring of perspectives continues as work on the novel progresses and others question the veracity of Yoko’s account, particularly Ririko. Her point of view begins to inform the film’s second half as difficulties in making the novel arise and she notices her partner falling under the influence of his glamorous cousin. All of this provides fertile ground for the cast who show their full range as they embrace multifaceted roles. Indeed, this demonstration of acting ability is the film’s raison d’etre.

The genesis of Body Remember occurred when Yamashina took to acting in theatre in between appearing in indie films like Swaying Mariko (2017) and My Lovely Days (2018). He was so inspired by his fellow stage actors that he made this film, co-written with the playwright Ippei Miyake, with the intention of providing its cast with challenging roles to showcase their talent. Everyone shines here, particularly Okuda and Furuya. Their chemistry is so good that they feel like besties with a long history but also a broken bond, as brought out in energetic laughter-filled dialogue of college shenanigans that is undermined by subtle body language that suggests false bonhomie is barely covering the cracks in their relationship. They have a good physicality that includes sensuality and their characters’ sexuality comes into question (something Furuya playfully experimented with in the 2016 drama At the Terrace). Tanaka is the axis around which this story revolves and she has a smouldering presence which she occasionally allows to gutter out with moments of mystery and melancholy. Shibata and Ayukawa act as our entry into this story and are entirely sympathetic and interesting as they wrestle with the material. Rounding things off is Yamashina who adds another breach between reality and fiction.

Yamashina’s clear direction ensures that the camera catches the performers perfectly while concise editing keeps the story flowing along smoothly. Just as you think you are getting a hold on things, the perspectives and fine performances change but it never feels confused or contrived and so we can enjoy the atmospheric performances and getting to the bottom of the mystery presented in the creation of a novel from different perspectives.

Body Remember is streaming as part of SF IndieFest from February 4-21.