VIDEOPHOBIA (Japan, 2019) [OAFF 2020]

There are few filmmakers capturing the zeitgeist of youth culture like Daisuke Miyazaki. His characters, often smartphone-wielding young women, make their way through a chaotic world with what little resources have been given to them by society. This scarcity of support engendered a spirit of defiance in Yamato (California) (2016) and an openness for change in Tourism (2018) which helped the protagonists of those films define their own identity. VIDEOPHOBIA is Miyazaki’s darkest work yet, one that shows the shadowy side of technology as revealed through online pornography.

Ai (Tomona Hirota) is a perpetually exhausted young woman living in Osaka. Having bottomed out after an attempt at living in Tokyo, her life seems to be dominated by her nocturnal habits of smoking, browsing the net and venturing to pornographic websites. She is online but disconnected from reality. Her daily routine is half-heartedly talking to her sisters and mother, working part-time as a mascot in a shopping street and taking acting classes. Disappointment and confusion seem to have sapped her of vitality and even clubbing with friends is tiring. Then she meets a guy. He doesn’t give her his name but he is charismatic and invites her over to his apartment, which is quite a fancy place. This leads to a night of lust that brings out a little warmth and humanity as they clutch hands after a sex session on the sofa. She notices a camera on a shelf pointed in their direction but pays it little thought.

The next day, Ai is back to her routines and, whilst browsing the net, discovers that a sex tape of her midnight tryst was made without her knowledge and is now in circulation. This plunges the girl into a pool of paranoia and, with every action she takes to rectify the situation and remove the video, she is dragged deeper into a feeling of terror. Events become uncontrollable, technology more intrusive and Ai loses control of her image which exists online.

VIDEOPHOBIA speaks to our age in a way few films do. With laser-focus, it shows how tech is absolutely everywhere, from surveillance cameras to smartphone screens, and how we are vulnerable as we allow it to define ourselves. The ubiquity of cameras has created a selfie-obsessed generation that readily leaves their existence engraved in digital perpetuity with little regard for what that truly means. What is seemingly innocuous tech opens up a whole host of social issues such as revenge porn and spy cams and extortion through honey traps. Miyazaki’s framing of these issues takes on an existential horror tone reminiscent of David Lynch. Peeling back shiny facade of the reality we all share, he reveals the dangers of constantly being on film and of selling access to ourselves.

Miyazaki also resists and satirises the cutesy Japan pushed by the media whilst delving deeply into the real Osaka represented by Korean neighbourhoods like Tsuruhashi, the live houses and rivers leading to docks. Monochrome visuals allow flat lighting to give the proceedings an enervated look as the deep pools of black linger menacingly.

In this environment roams Hirota, who essays Ai in a fugue state before her crises starts. We see a very believable picture of a person’s sense of self evaporating under the constant technological intrusion into her everyday life. That she once indulged in using this tech is an ironic fate for the poor woman. Miyazaki shows the breakdown of her sense of self through shaky close-ups of her face while the shadows under her eyes frame a look of fright as she begins to lose her sense of reality. She bursts into frenzied energy at points as she seeks a solution but what ultimately meets her is disappointment. As she realizes the limits of the law and support groups, Ai understands that she has lost control of her sense of self to technology.

This haunting disconnection from others as a result of technology happens under the gaze of so many cameras that the film takes on a technohorror atmosphere. made even more insidious and mysterious by inexplicable details such as where the man who made the video came from and where he went. There is imagery reminiscent of cinema of the past, such as seeing Ai wearing a facial mask looking like Christiane from Georges Franju’s Eyes Without a Face (1960). It plays into the terrifying notion of a soul being stolen by a camera and for all of the transformations that occur, with the experience of having her essential humanity rendered into pornographic content leaving Ai a victim living in perpetual fear.

VIDEOPHOBIA is showing at the Osaka Asian Film Festival on March 7 and 10.