Urban alienation is a thematic mainstay in the independent cinema of Japan, and Torso continues this trend by concentrating on the life of a lonely woman who seeks solace in her ‘relationship’ with the headless blow-up prosthetic of the title. Torso marks the directorial debut of Hirokazu Koreeda’s regular cinematographer Yutaka Yamasaki, and there are some discernable similarities with Koreeda’s Air Doll (2009) in which a sex doll developed a soul, then attempted to engage with the outside world by finding a job in a video store and falling in love with her co-worker. In contrast to the magical-realism of Air Doll, which was shot by Ping Bin Lee rather than Yamasaki, the aesthetic sensibility of Torso is resolutely lo-fi, with the first-time director grounding such perversity in daily routine by approaching the unusual subject matter in an unobtrusive manner. Hiroko (Makiko Watanabe) is detached from both her co-workers and family members, going through the motions so that she can return home to spend time with her inflatable torso. She has a younger half-sister, Mina (Sakura Ando), who is more extroverted but has particularly bad judgment with regards to partners as her current boyfriend, who is never seen, is prone to bouts of abusive behaviour. Hiroko likes to spend her free time having sex with her torso, but she is forced to hide it away and subsequently engage in even more secretive activity when Mina suddenly arrives in the middle of the night having walked away from her rocky relationship.
Torso is the kind of observational cinema that one would expect from someone who shot such contemplative pieces as After Life (1998), Nobody Knows (2004) and Still Walking (2008). As such, the film revolves around a method of dealing with solitude that initially seems rather strange, but eventually becomes almost ordinary due to the documentary-style approach. There is a slight frisson when Mina discovers the torso and also seeks some private pleasure in order to satisfy the ‘needs of the adult’, but the dynamic between the two half-sisters remains firmly in the realms of realism, with their largely unspoken bond providing an affecting portrait of strained familial ties. Yamasaki’s unhurried direction elicits strong work from Watanabe and Ando, who offer nuanced performances as two women who have shared experiences yet are still, in many respects, strangers. At one point, Mina asks Hiroko, “Why are you always down?’ to which her half-sister replies, ‘This is my character.’ Such an exchange is typical of the manner in which they communicate, with Mina striving for some sisterly connection, only for Hiroko to cut-off the conversation before it can get started. Hiroko allows Mina to stay in her home out of obligation, cooking for her and making sure she is comfortable, but obviously less than pleased with her presence. Close company means that their relationship develops, and the half-sisters have fun playing games with make-up and sparklers, but Hiroko continues to keep Mina at a distance, preferring to deal with her problems in private.
The solitary lifestyle of Hiroko is intimately captured through Yamasaki’s minimalist technique, with handheld camera-work being used to show her rolling around with the torso both at home and at a secluded beach. There is a rare moment of unguarded laughter when she buries the torso in the sand, while the awkwardness she displays when in close proximity to unfamiliar males – a rental car agent, ill-mannered locals, a salary-man in a bar – shows her inability to interact with people on a casual level. Perhaps the most interesting aspect of Torso is that it does not deal with Hiroko’s initial experimentation with the torso, instead beginning with the prosthetic already established as part of her daily life; an extended early scene has her cooking dinner, sipping white wine until the food is ready, then eating her meal before taking out the torso for what is clearly a regular means of relieving tension or, perhaps, coming to terms with trauma. This is not a film that seeks to explain such behaviour, rather one that asks the audience to accept an individual response to sexual and social isolation. Torso is immediately identifiable as a first feature, with its enclosed exploration of its protagonists, limited locations, supporting players that appear out of convenience and vague approach to character psychology that could lead to multiple post-screening explanations. It is too soon to tell if Yamasaki will sustain his career shift from cinematographer to director, but Torso certainly serves as a suitably provocative calling card.
Torso screens Sunday, July 17th at 4:00 PM at Japan Society, NYC. For tickets, click here.