After finding festival success with the independent features Moon & Cherry (2005) and Ain’t no Tomorrows (2008), director Yuki Tanada takes a step into the mainstream with the Nikkatsu production One Million Yen Girl. This consistently engaging road movie serves as a strong showcase for the versatile talents of Yû Aoi in the title role of a young ex-convict on the move, enabling the actress to build on her breakthrough performance in Shunji Iwai’s Hana and Alice (2004) and subsequent appearances in Satoshi Miki’s Turtles are Surprisingly Fast Swimmers (2005), Masahiro Takada’s Honey and Clover (2006), and Bong Joon-ho’s segment of Tokyo! (2008). However, One Million Yen Girl is not a merely a vehicle for a rising star. Tanada’s deft direction sidesteps the clichés of the travel narrative to provide some insight into the stigma that surrounds members of Japanese society who have been convicted of a crime, while also showing how the shame that stems from that conviction can quietly impact upon one’s sense of self.
When we are introduced to the 21-year-old Suzuko, she is holding down a menial job and still living at home. She takes a tentative step towards independence when she decides to move into an apartment with a co-worker, only for her colleague to reveal at the last minute that they will also be sharing with her boyfriend. When the couple break up, Suzuko is left to share with her co-worker’s ex-boyfriend; their personalities clash and Suzuko commits an impulsive act that leads to a formal complaint and a criminal charge. After serving a short prison sentence, Suzuko is unable to settle back into her life due to neighbourhood gossip and conflict within her family, largely caused by her younger brother Takuya (Ryusei Sato). She decides to save up one million yen (the amount approximately needed for rent, deposit and fees in order to secure an apartment) and move to a town where nobody knows her. Despite meeting friendly people wherever she goes, she keeps repeating the process. In most road movies, characters find themselves whilst in transit, but Suzuko is only able to acknowledge her need for others when she stays in one place for a little longer than expected due to a romantic relationship with a charming college student (Mirai Moriyama).
Tanada is not a sentimental storyteller, and she refuses to romanticise life on the road; once settled in each community (a beach resort, a mountain village, a more urbanised town), Suzuko largely repeats the same experience (a mundane job, the discovery of some ‘hidden’ talent, avoiding the advances of a potential suitor) and is privately burdened by her secret. Observation is favoured over incident, aside from a side-splitting scene in which the council of the mountain village encourage Suzuko to ‘be the peach girl’ in order to promote their local produce on national television. One Million Yen Girl moves at a leisurely pace and the sub-plot involving Suzuko’s younger brother is perhaps an unnecessary addition, but the central performance of Aoi – awkward in manner and frequently kept at a distance from others within Tanada’s frame – maintains interest. Aoi clearly conveys both the shame that has caused Suzuko’s to withdraw from those around her (friends, family, co-workers) and the minor transformation that the character undergoes as she concedes that she can form relationships with others, even if they must be on her own terms. With regards to her future forays into the studio system, it is hoped that Tanada can continue to do the same.