Her Sketchbook (Japan, 2017) [Japan Foundation Film Tour 2020]

Japan is a densely populated country so, in order to live there, it is important to make connections with others as well as to find your own niche. Achieving both can be exhausting, especially for those lacking in confidence who find themselves in fiercely competitive schools or workplaces. With so much pressure many people drop out of society and become hikikomori or NEETs. Her Sketchbook dramatizes this through a story about a young woman making incremental improvements to her life in order to find her voice and integrate with the regular world.

This sophomore directorial effort of veteran screenwriter Masaya Ozaki centers on the character of Mami Konuma (Mugi Kadowaki), an introverted twenty-something who tries to limit contact with others. Aside from her father, Eisuke (Makita Sports), and a local boy she has known since her school days, she rarely engages with many people. Flashbacks show she has been put-upon by others since she was a child and not given the confidence by her parents, her father too reticent and her hard-to-please mother (played by single-named actress YOU) distant to the extent that she left the family.

Shy Mami has clearly been hurt by others and their lack of consideration for her has resulted in her struggling with being a hikikomori. Her chief defining feature, which she tries to hide, is that she is a fully-fledged otaku with a passion for drawing. Her worried father gets her a job debugging video games. It seems like a genius idea since the job doesn’t require much interaction with other people, but her drawings soon get her noticed by handsome production director Ryotaro (Takahiro Miura) and his encouragement inspires all sorts of new feelings. But it isn’t easy for Mami as she continues to struggle to define her place in the wider world and find her voice.

The film aims for a feel good tone as the narrative generates some light workplace comedy, exults in Mami’s passion for art, and teases romance. However, Ozaki resists going to obvious places as he places an emphasis on Mami’s search for the strength to express herself. As we get involved with Mami’s day-to-day life we notice who dominates the dialogue and how people often speak for her. Her opinionated mother and soft father alternately dismiss or praise her art without regard for what it means to her while Mami’s relationship with Ryotaro is shown to be based on her naiveté and his need for an artist. Crucially, nobody really asks what she wants. It seems every decision made was for their convenience rather than with any regard for her. Although these characters are gently and humorously essayed, their relentlessness becomes suffocating. As such, we understand Mami’s reluctance to engage with others as well as her desire to escape and, through Kadowaki’s acting, we feel her struggle to break free.

Kadowaki has emerged as a fine leading lady with a penchant for roles involving quiet characters whose facades hide murky emotions, whether as a young woman caught in an illicit and morally wrong affair in historical drama Hanagatami (2017) or a student in modern-day psycho-sexual tale Double Life (2016). Her Sketchbook is seemingly undemanding as Kadowaki plays an introverted, reticent character through stilted movement and hesitant speech and the inability to look people in the eye. Her performance borders on overly-mannered but stops just short. She still feels like a girl who lacks confidence even if we are aware of a certain theatricality.

Her movement provides grounds for comedic social faux pas and works on a thematic level because she has found the world difficult to navigate. Kadowaki’s aura allows us to sense Mami has allowed herself to be buffeted by the people around her and taken comfort in a solitary pursuit like art. This means we root for her to find her independence and her own artistic voice, even as others push her to go in different directions. The camera often rests on Kadowaki as tender emotions come out. The one fly in the ointment is a misjudged rape joke, which serves no discernible purpose. It is jarring and strikes a contradictory note with regards to the character who attempts it.

Other aspects are better. Using the real-life studio of game development company Mages, famous amongst otaku culture for such visual novels as Robotics;Note and Steins;Gate, not only adds realism to the film but lends some subculture bonafides. Kenji Kawai’s score is immediately identifiable as his, a lavish orchestral sound boosted by synths. One musical leitmotif really enhances the film’s sentimentality, a gentle and insistent piano-driven piece which suggests the immense talent hiding in Mami just waiting to be found.

Overall, Her Sketchbook is cute but what makes it compelling is Kadowaki’s performance which conveys naiveté and hopefulness as well as uncertainty and fear. Ozaki gives Mami an emotional journey that is not to dissimilar to Kiki, the titular witch from Studio Ghibli’s Kiki’s Delivery Service (1989) who breaks away from her family home to find her calling in life, only Her Sketchbook shows the real-world magic of patience and gradually drawing people out of their shells.

Her Sketchbook is part of the Japan Foundation Film Touring Programme 2020, which is showing at selected UK venues from January 31 to March 29.