Among Four of Us (Japan, 2020) [OAFF 2021/JAPAN CUTS 2021]

The Covid-19 pandemic has seen a number of movies using the restrictions of lockdown situations to try new spins on old stories with social media platforms playing key roles. There were Zoom seances (The Host), actors in isolation making a horror film via videos recorded separately and edited together (One Cut of the Dead Mission: Remote), and actors on the same set voicing the SNS comments written by their characters as they experience tentative romance mediated by the internet (Here and There). While most of these films will be curios of an age where many of our interactions were confined online, Mayu Nakamura’s 20-minute short Among Four of Us feels both specific to our moment and also timeless as it presents a profoundly sad examination of the human condition.

The central conceit is a socially distanced late-night conversation that takes place between three friends, Koji (Kota Kusano), Fusae (Fusako Urabe), and Nanae (Nahana). 20 years previously, they were in the same college drama club but went their separate ways with Fusae and Nanae having given up acting and settled down to domesticity while Koji persists. Haunted by lockdown loneliness and an incident with a fourth member of their theatre troupe, Koji attempts to resurrect the friendly nature of their former relationship with beers and a laidback talk in a park.

Here is where the conceit gets interesting.

The opening minutes of their conversation has each character sat on a park bench with a few props. It initially seems like this might take a standard shot-reverse-shot format as each character is positioned to look like they are facing each other, each getting a separate shot when they talk. It is only when we hear a voice come through a speaker that we realize that it’s a group chat over the internet via an SNS like Line. They are, in reality, alone as they talk. Separating characters by shot and the way they are framed makes them seem lonelier and this is a feeling carried through in the film.

What they talk about initially are the inconveniences and troubles imposed by Covid-19, new realities that root the film in our specific moment in time. What is mentioned will ring true for many viewers: the irritation of being stuck at home, the anxiety of jobs drying up, a sense of isolation, angst over an uncertain future, etc. Naturally, these middle-aged characters slip into nostalgia and lament the gap between their past ambitions and their present realities. And this is where the presence of that aforementioned fourth person, a woman named Sayoko, looms heavily over the four.

A mercurial figure, Sayoko is cast alternately as playful or a siren-like figure depending upon a character’s history with her. There’s definitely a little “neko wo kaburu” from all of the tall tales, but as the conversation goes, on different layers of resentment towards Sayoko are felt and we get the feeling that her influence derailed their lives. What started as a lighthearted catch-up turns into a disturbing series of confessions that reveal profound emotional damage characters dealt to themselves and other based on their relationship with Sayoko. The dialogue is rich with subjective details as each person’s recollection explains how their own behavior was driven by jealousy, desire, and embarrassment. It is hard not to be sucked into their stories with a lurid interest.

While we understand why they perceived her in such negative ways, the act of airing out their feelings and being challenged by others in the conversation presents a new reality of the woman. It is only through their enforced distance due to the pandemic and time elapsed that they start to communicate and see Sayoko more clearly, a state of understanding hard to achieve when they were close together. Their pent up emotions are allowed out and a sense of understanding and catharsis is felt, something they signal to each other with their comment about the beauty of the moon.

The film’s set-up is deceptively slight, but convincingly real dialogue builds in detail to provide depth with each character offers a different perspective on a person to create an ever-evolving and engaging complex story, while using Covid-19 as a catalyst for reaching a state of catharsis is cleverly done. Despite never being in the same shot together, the direction and editing make everyone feel connected. The performers interact like real friends while their facial expressions, often captured in close-ups, convey decades of emotions. Urabe in particular excels as someone made deeply bitter and full of despair.

While it begins with a state of emergency in response to the pandemic, Nakamura’s script contains universal themes of loneliness, distance, and memory. The pandemic is a prompt for an exploration of these themes which are revealed to have infected the lives of the characters in a significant way, so audiences should become absorbed in the drama that unfolds.

Among Four of Us was shown at the Osaka Asian Film Festival on March 9 and 12. It is streaming in North America from August 20 to September 2 as part of JAPAN CUTS: Festival of New Japanese Film.