Our House (Japan, 2017), or the spectral and the spatial [New Directors/New Films 2018]

The opening scene of Yui Kiyohara’s debut feature (as her master’s degree project at Tokyo’s University of the Arts) immediately draws the spectator into its filmic space: a small group of teenagers, all dressed in white, is dancing and laughing. Presumably a slumber party, the girls are dancing in the dark, with only swatches of moonlight sometimes catching their white-clad figures. If not for the jaunty, electronic pop beat of the song that accompanies their movements and laughter, one would mistake them for phantoms of a whimsical nature during one of their nocturnal jaunts across empty/abandoned dwellings. When one among the girls stops dancing and switches on a light, the music also suddenly ends. The girl occupies the foreground on the right side of the frame, facing the camera and bathed in the light, and asks her friends cloaked in shadow in the background on the left side of the frame if they heard what she has heard. After their reply of ‘Oh, it’s just your imagination,’ they resume dancing but the music does not. Have they, in fact, been dancing without music all along? The girl in the foreground then turns her back to the camera and the scene/shot gives way to the film’s title and fades to black.

With this introductory scene, Kiyohara generates a beautifully wistful, bewitching quality that makes one think of cool summer nights spent in the blissful softness of teenage youth before entering the sharpness of adulthood. One is therefore steeped in curiosity as to what the rest of the film has in store. Arguably the film’s most memorable moment, the opening scene’s motifs of spectrality, mis/perception, and, by implication, identity are taken up throughout the film through two pairs of women living in what seems to be the same house. Is it a matter of parallel lives or past and present ones linked by the house? Or is one pair of women ghostly counterparts of the other pair? Making the film simultaneously taxing and compelling is the fact that Kiyohara is less interested in resolving such questions than creating and exploring the ambience that provokes these questions in the spectator. One could even say that in favour of the latter, Kiyohara is subtly nudging the spectator to more existential, poetic issues regarding how one inhabits a space, alone and/or with others; the human-like qualities of spaces; and different planes of living. While emotionally uneven and at times lapsing into affected abstractions, Kiyohara certainly makes one take notice of a new voice/presence in independent Japanese cinema.

Kiriko: This house is alive. […] This house is still healthy.

The first pair of women is widowed mother Kiriko (Yukiko Yasuno) and thirteen-going-on-fourteen Seri (Nodoka Kawanishi). The two live a banal but contented life of meals together, doing the laundry, having birthday parties, Kiriko working, and Seri going to school. But such banality and contentedness mask the changes that are afoot in their individual and collective lives: through certain conversational exchanges and actions, Seri betrays her growing pains while her mother’s relationship with a waste collector/sanitation worker progresses to the point of an impending remarriage.

The other pair consists of a young woman Toko (Mei Fujiwara), who appears to mend clothes for a living but also engages in a clandestine investigation of the pollution of local water, and Sana (Mariow Osawa), an amnesiac whom Toko meets on a ferry and allows to stay at her place while she tries to regain/remember her sense of self. The mother-daughter pair possesses an earthlier quality than the two strangers-become-friends/roommates; the nuance of (changing) feeling captured, with Seri especially, makes for some really delicate and touching moments. Toko and Sana live on a more abstract plane, beginning with the fact that the latter is amnesiac but also because details of other aspects of Toko’s life are mysteriously kept hidden (from Sana as well as the spectator).

Separately, each pair would do well as the sole subject/characters of a film, barring the affected and superfluous characteristics of Toko and Sana’s thread (particularly the character of Natsuki, a man whom Sana randomly befriends). Admittedly, the sequence that teases the coming together of these different planes/worlds operating in the same space near the film’s conclusion ends up feeling forced and predictable instead of gripping. However, the pairing (and not the colliding) of these pairs of women living in the same house, the back-and-forth between one plane of living (experiential and earthly) and another (conceptual and abstract), somehow produces — though intermittently, unevenly — that same wistful, bewitching quality of the film’s opening sequence.

Our House is showing on April 6 and 8 as part of MoMA’s 2018 ‘New Directors/New Films’ series.