Ito (Japan, 2021) [OAFF 2021]

Winner of the Grand Prix and Audience Award at the Osaka Asian Film Festival 2021, Ito is a crowd-pleaser with a lot of heart. It was adapted for the screen by director Satoko Yokohama from the first in a series of three youth novels by popular author Osamu Koshigaya. The books are set in Aomori Prefecture, the birthplace of Yokohama and the film’s lead actress Ren Komai. Their intimate knowledge of the region helps to deepen the feelings in this comedy-drama about a highschooler who finds her voice through maid cafés and shamisen.

Komai plays Ito Soma, a gangly teenage girl who lives in a small town outside the more urban Hirosaki city. She has a timid nature and a thick Tsugaru accent which makes her sound a bit like a hick. However, far from being a hayseed, Ito is very knowledgeable about her local culture and can also play the shamisen, a three-stringed instrument. She picked this skill up from her grandmother (Yoko Nishikawa) and a it’s a considerable part of the few memories she holds of her late mother, a talented shamisen player in her own right. Alas, Ito refuses to practice. She stays silent due to her embarrassment over her country roots and also her melancholy over never having known her mother. However, it is by fully embracing these factors that Ito becomes able to express herself.

What helps push her along is an unlikely job at a maid café in Hirosaki. This boilerplate set-up is where the film gets most of its laughs. Fish out of water comedy ensues as our shy protagonist must put herself on display in a quirky setting and try to act cute, only to mess up in some fashion. For those who have been to maid cafés, the details ring true but, when given that awkward rendition by Ito, they become amusing. Those scenes are well done as the whole cast hits the appropriate comic notes with enough fizz to make it fun while ensuring that the characters feel distinctive enough to give their impact on Ito’s growth sufficient weight.

Ultimately, what wins out in the film is the sense that Ito is her own fully formed character rather than just a wallflower who needs others to give her a personality. This is underlined when she refuses to submit to the well-meaning but infantilizing protection offered by her father and from café customers charmed by her goofiness, and by how Ito is constantly searching for answers while pushing herself to communicate with others. It is through these interactions that she slowly comes to the realisation that her ability to communicate is something intrinsically linked to her culture and this is where the shamisen comes into play.

The Japanese title “Itomichi” is metaphorical as well as literal. The word itomichi is made up of two kanji, one symbolising a thread/string and the other a road. It is a reference to the groove which is formed in the nail of a shamisen player from constantly playing the instrument’s strings. It’s a physical thing shared between Ito, her mother and grandmother. It can also be a metaphor for the ties between three generations of women as well as the impact that culture and history has on a person’s character. This is exemplified by Ito’s journey as she embraces parts of heritage and uses it to communicate on her terms and it is most convincingly portrayed by the main star.

Ren Komai delivers a performance that skilfully combines both comedy and drama. Her lanky physicality lends itself to pratfalls and the simple visual gags based on appearance. She also has plenty of moments when she shows the interiority of her character and is able to come across as reticent teen who is nonetheless full of spirit. These alternating emotions mean she comes off as real while still being quirky.

As mentioned, Yokohama is a native of this land and so she brings an insider’s eye to capture the spirit of the place. The filming locations are all pleasant to view – small cities, villages, mist-wreathed mountainsides and country roads fringed by persimmon trees that give an authentic vibe of country living. There are also little lessons inserted to tell us more about Aomori as seen in shamisen lessons and trips to a museum dedicated to World War II air raids which show objects and pictures from survivors in freeze frame. The best moment is the sequence where Ito’s shamisen performance is given full rein at the film’s climax. It allows us to enjoy Komai’s sterling four-minute musical fireworks display, which has occasional shots of her face and those in the audience in close up to show how profoundly moved people are, as well as occasional shots of the finger-work to show her skill as it is finally unleashed.

The film ends on one final image where Ito, a girl who has struggled to articulate herself throughout the film, finally cries out with all her soul and she gets a reply of sorts. It brings together all of the film’s theme and shows that culture is an intrinsic part of human nature so long as we acknowledge how they shape us and use them wisely.

Ito was shown at the Osaka Asian Film Festival on March 10 and 14.