Ordinary Everyday (Japan, 2017) [OAFF 2018]

Ordinary Everyday is a short film examining that idealised fantasy many people have: the perfect family. Is there such a thing? We all have hidden sides which we conceal. This proves to be the case with one family in downtown Tokyo who suck a naïve outsider into their seemingly ordinary everyday lives in a tale where the ambiguous is mined for horror.

The story starts innocuously enough with Mr Tsuda (Shinnosuke Abe), a handsome teacher, visiting a student named Ami (Karin Ono) who has been absent from school due to a broken arm. He’s concerned but he needn’t be because what he finds is a happy schoolgirl with a seemingly perfect family consisting of her beautiful mother Kanako (Tamae Ando) and Sho (Eito Suda), her cute little brother. Everyone has a smile on their face and is pleasant to be around except Sho who is sullen. There’s no sign of the father. Could that be the reason?

Whatever the case, when Kanako invites Tsuda over again the teacher agrees as he gets sucked into a weird atmosphere. On the one hand, Kanako showers him with desirous looks and acts vulnerable however, just at the edge of Tsuda’s perception, he can sense there is something strange brewing. A presence making things go bump in the house, Sho’s anti-social behaviour, and weird situations he increasingly enters. If the audience is getting suspicious, Tsuda is barely thinking because Kanako’s attractive presence beguiles him and so he may not be able to find out what’s going on before it’s too late…

To say anything more would be to ruin a film that exhibits masterful control of mise-en-scène to create suspense and unease. The setting is ordinary enough at the start but director Noriko Yuasa uses various audio and visual techniques to gradually distort the action on the screen. This creates an increasingly weird situation that hints at the danger to come.

The false sense of security needed to make this story so effective is seen in the superb set design – a fine family house with a garden is well established and acts as a mundane focal point for the film to return to. It feels like a place out of time, an ocean of calm if you have experienced the busy Sumida and Asakusa areas. The quiet and comfortable interiors are rich with details such as family photos, musical instruments and this convinces as a space that is lived in. But watch the film again and realise how brilliantly everything is set up for various reveals later on in the story.

There is a world outside of the house and we see it through cutaways to different characters doing different things, all of which are slices of normality. However, long takes and expertly deployed reaction shots allow the actors to signal something is strange with their character’s behaviour. A look of fear or a physical tic suggesting nervousness, or, in the case of one family member, a hidden river of anger that spills out before quickly being turned off once self-control is exerted. These increase the creepiness. There’s an ambiguity about what is going on behind the beautiful facade which creates a gripping atmosphere. This ambiguity leaks out into the wider world where the characters pinball around the area, not quite able to escape the nefarious embrace of the house and the person who runs it.

Yuasa creates an off-kilter atmosphere through sound and visual design with sudden noises and prop movements that attract the attention of characters being the obvious tricks. The tension really builds and spikes, though, when Yuasa drains the screen of all colours except red and orange, utilises crazed editing, and interesting camera placement to hardwire weirdness into seemingly normal scenes. In doing so, environments that aren’t typical for horror films are subverted. It is the ambiguity behind the scenes of normality which create unease so we don’t know how to react. There is the sense that Yuasa is peeling back the ordinary and showing the horror beneath, using ambiguity to upset the audience.

The music is unsettling. Electronica and a strange classical piece by Koji Endo and sound effects by Hideo Koyama help texture the film by creating a weird soundscape that matches the changing atmosphere. The soundtrack features something akin to a heavenly choir at the start and it suggests how Tsuda is lulled into believing this idealised family portrait. By the midway point, the eeriness is cranked up through the sound design which creates an atmosphere of dread through white noise, ominous noises cascading through the sets, and a howling wind that seems to be blowing in from a supernatural realm.

Acting is pitch-perfect, especially from Ando who can display the alluring neediness that gets men to switch off their brains, as shown when glimpsed through POV shots.  Abe perfectly portrays an unwitting dupe falling for Ando’s charms and the image of an idealised family. Ono and Suda are balls of energy, at once delightful but hard to handle. All wear false masks and their ambiguity adds even more tension until the final reveal.

Ordinary Everyday was originally part of the omnibus movie Kuruibana (2017) but it is strong enough to have taken on a life of its own as it is filled with shocks and a sense of the fantastic that audiences may not be able to take in with a single viewing. Aside from the messily executed reveal, Yuasa subtly alters the film’s established logic and atmosphere in extraordinary ways until the film ultimately reveals itself to be a precision-tooled psycho-thriller. Yuasa’s ability to dive into a strange story, not to mention her inventive use of sound and visual design, makes her a filmmaker that audiences should start tracking.

Ordinary Everyday was shown at the Osaka Asian Film Festival on March 12.