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This article was written By John Berra on 01 Mar 2012, and is filed under Reviews.

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About John Berra

John Berra is a lecturer in Film and Language Studies at Renmin University of China. He is the editor of the Directory of World Cinema: Japan (2010/12/15); co-editor of World Film Locations: Beijing (2012); and co-editor of World Film Locations: Shanghai (2014). His work has appeared in The End: An Electric Sheep Anthology (2011), Electric Shadows: A Century of Chinese Cinema (2014) and Ozu International: Essays on the Global Influences of a Japanese Auteur (2015).

Vibrator (Japan, 2003)

Vibrator begins on March 14, the date that Japan celebrates White Day, which can be described as a second Valentine’s Day in that men who received chocolate one month earlier reciprocate the romantic gesture by showering their partner with even more generous gifts. However, freelance writer Rei (Shinobu Terajima) has little interest in the White Day promotions on offer in her regular late-night convenience store as she has neither a boyfriend nor any affinity with such popular sentiments. Rei is one of Japan’s ‘lost generation’, left economically and emotionally adrift in a seemingly never-ending recession as he ekes out a living by contributing articles to glossy women’s magazines that promote images of physical perfection at the expense of genuine social insight. She is in the convenience store to buy white wine, but is distracted by the voices in her head, until the entrance of another customer captures her attention: Takatoshi (Nao Omori) is a truck driver who, ‘looks like a fisherman’ with his boots and heavy clothing, but Rei wants to, ‘eat him up’, discarding her shopping basket to follow him out to his vehicle. Takatoshi invites her up to his cab where he shares his alcohol and snacks, with casual conversation soon leading to a more erotic encounter. The following day, Rei decides to accompany Takotoshi on his long-haul delivery and they drive across Japan while sharing life stories; she is 31-years-old, suffering from an eating disorder, while he is a few years younger with a shady yakuza past.

Following his training in pink cinema, writer-director Ryuichi Hiroki has become a leading figure in the Japanese independent sector, with Vibrator falling in-between Tokyo Trash Baby (2000) and It’s Only Talk (2005) as one his accounts of directionless young adults in a post-bubble economy. Hiroki’s background in erotica is evident in the explicit sex scene that occurs just twenty minutes into this typically frank drama, but Vibrator subsequently evolves into a road movie with the chance encounter between Rei and Takatoshi resulting in a deeper connection. Much of Vibrator relies on conversation, with Takatoshi being particularly talkative when prompted by Rei; his attitude that, ‘you won’t know what’s interesting unless you try it’, has extended to various jobs and affiliations with organised crime, while even as a trucker he has taken risks by transporting smack in frozen tuna for the yakuza. Although equally disaffected, Rei has tried to fit into mainstream society, which has led to the body issues that she tries to explain in relation to her work as a magazine writer. It soon becomes apparent that these characters have similar problems with Japanese society, but Takatoshi’s method of dealing with marginalisation has at least allowed him to live on his own terms. Shooting on DV, Hiroki occasionally opens-up the source novel by Mari Akasaka with shots of Japan’s industrialised landscape accompanied by rock music, or flashbacks that illustrate Rei and Takatoshi’s recollections, but mostly relies on the terrific performances of his two leads to convey Rei’s gradual catharsis.

Terajima, who would reunite with Hiroki to portray a manic-depressive in It’s Only Talk, is achingly credible as a struggling urbanite who has been resorting to bulimia while just wanting, ‘to touch someone.’ The potentially lazy device of voice-over actually becomes an additional layer of insight as Rei’s thoughts are relayed in stream-of-conscious fashion: in the opening scene, she flits between topics – the marketing ploys of chocolate makers, her preferred alcoholic beverages, glamour magazines – at once suggesting self-awareness and an inability to systematically address her various issues. Further narration is provided by the inter-titles that appear at frequent intervals, although these could also be extracts from an article that Rei is writing. It is possible that Takatoshi is a fantasy as he embodies a number of enticing contradictions that would surely appeal to Rei’s readership: married yet available, employed yet free, rugged yet sensitive, violent yet tender, experienced yet youthful. However, the completely naturalistic manner in which Omori embraces his character’s many facets, particularly when extolling the virtues of life on the road, ensures that Takatoshi is equally believable and more than a wish-fulfillment figure. Hiroki seems to consider this brief relationship as an intervention of sorts, effectively breaking Rei’s cycle of binging and purging: although she concedes that the voices in her head may return, Rei’s cry of, ‘Find companionship on the road! Have compassion in life!’ shows a crucial shift in perspective. In its own strangely romantic way, Vibrator is perhaps the perfect White Day movie.

Vibrator is screening this Sunday, March 4th, 2012 at the Japan Society in New York City as part of the Society’s “Love Will Tear Us Apart” film program.  For more information and tickets, go to the Japan Society page for this screening here.

Related posts:

Oldboy (2003) [NYAFF 2012]
Super Virgin (South Korea, 2012) [PiFan 2012]
Blind Massage (China, 2014) [NYAFF 2014]

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