On the surface, Japan is hyper-modern but underneath the shiny shell is a society sticking steadfastly to certain aspects of tradition. Nowhere is this more evident than with gender roles. This is what Ryo Kawasaki’s debut feature examines through a light and witty drama surrounding little-explored issues and indignities suffered by women who don’t adhere to society’s demand to have children at a young age.
The film takes place around Christmas. The religious aspect of the season is irrelevant for most people in the country who consider it a time for lovers to be romantic. Rather, the New Year period is the biggest celebration in the winter when people return home and pay a visit to a shrine. That said, various aspects of Christmas are impossible to escape such as decorations, chicken dinners at KFC and Christmas cake. In the past, this seemingly innocuous confection proved to be a powerful metaphor for wealth and, derisively for women who are unmarried after the age of 25, someone who is past their prime. For some of the characters in the film, the season is a sad reminder that they are nearing their romantic expiration date.
One such woman is the film’s lead, Junko (Mitsue Terasaka). She lives in Tokyo and works as an office lady and she is on the verge of turning 30. She is a quiet and pretty woman, not too tall and not too gregarious, and she seems to be in control of herself. However, underneath her shell, she is wracked with doubt. Unsure about marriage, children, and her future and with no partner in sight she feels increasing pressure to act, not least because her mother pesters her about getting married and she isn’t getting any younger. Indeed, her birthday is at the end of the year, so the clock is ticking. In a bold move, she decides to become an egg donor. If she won’t have children herself then at least some part of her will go on into the future with someone else. If her eggs are chosen by a couple, she will receive a free trip to Hawaii to undergo the procedure and 500,000 Yen. What she doesn’t count on is meeting her cousin at the same fertility clinic.
Aoi (Sora Kawai) is a young woman in need of money. Having just split up with her girlfriend and without a place to stay, meeting her cousin is fortuitous and they are soon cohabiting. However, it isn’t exactly smooth since Aoi is a messy youngster who some might consider selfish and irresponsible while Junko is a little uptight. Kawasaki teases multiple inter-generational misunderstandings in a montage but resists making a comedy out of proceedings and shows how the women are united by their femininity.
The film compares both women by briefly cutting between their routines, Junko with friends and co-workers and Aoi with her ex-lover, but their shared interests, travails and time together are what really mark them and a gradual accumulation of scenes crescendos in an extended outing around Shibuya. Both Junko and Aoi’s voices give their thoughts and feelings in narration that compliment each other, although Aoi has the added complication of being a lesbian in a conservative country. This invites the audience to engage with and enjoy female companionship as we understand that society’s expectations of women cut across class, age, and sexuality.
Still, hidden tensions soon hatch as the year reaches its end. With the expectation of a predictable clash undermined we see that something more insidious lurks under Junko’s calm surface. An anxiety based on the social conditioning demanding women have kids young is shaking her psyche and the closer she gets to Christmas the more violent it becomes and prompts an unhealthy competition that fractures Junko and Aoi’s relationship.
By the end we feel for the two ladies. Kawasaki’s concise direction positions us in the viewpoint of modern women through well-written characters. Junko is something of an every-woman and easy to sympathise with. Aoi’s background is a little darker, her romantic history sketchy, but she is equally a sincere person, as seen in the moments when she expresses genuine sorrow and resentment over prejudice experienced, moments which make the viewer deliberately uncomfortable in her presence and sympathise with her. Ultimately, anxieties over their inability to conform to some idealised femininity and other issues are discussed throughout in conversations that never feels contrived or like a diatribe. We are immersed in what it is like to experience the constant demand to conform, the pressure it exerts on individuals, and how it shapes their perception of themselves.
A graduate of Waseda University’s Theatre and Film Arts course, Kawasaki has worked steadily on various television dramas and films and she has made several short films. Wasted Eggs is an assured debut feature with good performances from the leads that allow the viewer to experience the world from a different point of view. In this case, it is a distinctly female one where all of the major roles go to women and only one man gets a line of dialogue. Through this entertaining and quietly affecting story, we understand the difficulties faced by women searching for their own identity in a conservative society.