Sisterhood (Japan, 2018) [OAFF 2019]

The only constant in life is change and we are living through massive changes, not least with regard to the battle for gender equality which has been marked most recently by the #MeToo movement which has spread from America and gained traction in some of the most conservative of societies around the world. Channelling some of the momentum experienced in Japan is Takashi Nishihara, writer and director of Sisterhood. He graduated from the Department of Arts and Film at Waseda University with a focus on documentary and has created fiction films – Blue Ray (2011) and the lesbian love drama Starting Over (2014) – as well as documentaries – About My Freedom (2016) and Queer Asia, a series for GagaOOLala, Asia’s first LGBTQ streaming service. With Sisterhood, he mixes fact and fiction in a film that shows some of the voices asking for change to mainstream of Japanese society.

To capture the shifts going on in gender relations in Japan, Nishihara blurs the bounds between fiction and reality by merging footage from a documentary he has been shooting over the last few years and a feature he shot in 2018. He goes further by casting real life actors and models such as Nina Endo and Mika Akizuki (the two leads from Starting Over), SUMIRE and Manami Usamaru, as well as the musician BOMI, and making them play fictional variations of themselves. Each gives a portrayal of a young woman going about their lives. We see them modelling, studying, performing concerts, each desiring to be treated fairly as they chase their dreams and each question their role in society. These questions emerge thanks to a link character, a middle-aged male Tokyo-based documentary film director named Ikeda, played by Ryo Iwase, who interviews people for a documentary about feminism.

The general flow of the script Nishihara wrote is gentle as we see characters negotiate life and encounter issues where gender inequality is present. This is not a political diatribe. The conflicts and ideas emerge through osmosis as we watch characters talking about issues such as love, health, family pressures and work in naturalistic ways with friends and we see a sisterhood emerge between female characters. Each person’s voice joins a larger chorus so we get a bigger picture of what young women may experience. The documentary aspect allows the film to adopt techniques such as vox pops and concert footage shot for the documentary four years ago, which are more direct in their social messages and add a lively verve to proceedings. Two highlights are seeing BOMI’s creativity as she, like the newest generation of indie artists, crafts music at home and plays live shows with passion and flair. Another has her giving bracing direct-to-camera interviews criticising how Japanese society prevents people from expressing themselves and, most pointedly, she dissects how there might never be gender equality any time soon unless men step up and help foster change. This was recorded as part of the documentary and has a different energy from the rest of the film. It also provides a lot of food for thought and a sting in the tail for the end of the narrative.

Aside from that interview, how much of what is said on screen is scripted and how much is improvised is never clear because Nishihara cleverly blurs the lines but it fits together and the irony that a man has written the words that some of these women speak is not lost on Nishihara who has put together a pretty self-reflexive film.

Nishihara’s self-awareness about the trickiness of a man writing a film with the title “Sisterhood” and addressing gender equality on behalf of women especially is shown through his use of Ikeda who seems to be a stand-in for the Nishihara and who is put through excruciatingly embarrassing scenes for where a female journalist criticises his work for being unfocused due to his male perspective and dismisses his efforts at trying to give voice to women’s issues because he robs women of agency. Some people might level a similar charge here, the unfocussed nature of the film and taking away women’s voices, but by the end of the film Nishihara achieves a clever synthesis of ideas as each character has a moment in a relationship or business deal which acts as a critique levelled at the behaviour of men and the infrastructure in place to control women.

This is most clearly shown in Manami Usamaru’s character as her nude modelling is a way of seizing her own identity after harrowing emotional experiences from adolescence but her efforts are also subject to exploitation through big publishers and the internet. Ikeda’s own hypocritical behaviour is exposed by one of the models played by Mika Akizuki, a woman he quietly longs for, as he talks good game about equality but is judgemental of a female friend’s behaviour. The ending is bitterly open and suggests that if men like Ikeda don’t realise how they are wasting women and act to make change, women will leave men in the dust.

In terms of form, Yukiko Iioka and Daisuke Yamamoto’s monochrome cinematography and camerawork allow for crisp visuals and an elegiac air which gives some eye-catching shots of the great metropolis of Tokyo as well as close-ups of the actors to capture intimate moments of hope and disappointment but most of the locations are of the ordinary and quiet variety so this has a realistic feel to things and suggests the conversations happening on screen are everywhere and should be listened to.

There is a quiet revolution going on and while this film doesn’t cover everything and may be messy and limited in scope (the women on screen all come from the same class and age bracket), it is interesting and has some emotional and intellectual pull. The fragmented semi-fictional lives match the unclear realities we exist in and are interwoven to create a cohesive whole that speaks of the changes to society we experience every day.

Sisterhood is showing on March 9 and 13 at the Osaka Asian Film Festival.