Good-bye (Japan, 2020) [OAFF 2020]

Aya Miyazaki got the filmmaking bug while studying at Waseda University. She took the video production course in her third year with one of her teachers being Hirokazu Kore-eda. His influence can be felt in her film Good-bye, specifically in how Miyazaki depicts the daily life of ordinary people in a minimalist style.

Sakura Ueno (Mayuko Fukuda) is a twenty-something who still lives with her mother (Asako Kobayashi) in their suburban home. Sakura’s father lives separately after a period spent raising Sakura by himself. Their routine is an easy and comfortable one that has the hallmarks of a teenager’s dynamic with a patient parent. It feels like they are in stasis, a state that goes unmentioned by the mother and is intuitively felt by the daughter. Seeking something she cannot quite articulate, Sakura ditches a comfortable office job and ends up working temporarily in a nursery school at a friend’s request. Despite the lack of experience, she proves to be a hit with the cute kids she meets, including Ai who she bonds with.

Ai is different from the other children. While everyone in the class eats homemade bento, Ai has store-bought sandwiches. Ai’s hair isn’t neat so the girl gets Sakura to do it. Ai’s father, Shindo (Kohei Ikeue), always comes to pick her up late after school. It seems Ai’s mother is absent. These points remind Sakura of her own background with Shindo resembling her father and so she begins to feel close to him and the girl. This prompts changes in her everyday behavior which, in turn, begins to cause a shift in the relationship Sakura has with her own parents.

While there are big changes, this is a quiet film where “action” consists of small moments and quiet character development, most of which is telegraphed via the actor’s body-language and little details in set decoration and props. Lead actress Fukuda does a lot of the heavy lifting. Initially, Sakura acts like a child  but gradually evolves over the film to access more complicated emotions such as motherly affection and her sensual side which is explored via her use of make-up and her interactions with Shindo. We are led to believe a sort of love develops between Shindo and Sakura from the gazes the two exchange whenever he picks Ai up, but this is an underdeveloped aspect of the film. While what Sakura sees in him fits into her psychological development as brought out in the script, what Shindo sees in her is isn’t telegraphed that well so some of his actions come off as unrealistic considering the circumstances. Perhaps this is a matter of perception and sensitivity on the part of the viewer. The rest of the film points to the clear maturation of Sakura and her relationship with her parents. It is handled in a naturalistic way, although it ends on a slightly creepy note that is sure to get viewers talking afterwards. 

Reaching for realism, Miyazaki makes sure the mise-en-scène is resolutely normal. The film takes place in a suburban area too plain to warrant being shown in most movies and there is a stillness to events which are often shown in long takes. Although the film is well shot, Miyazaki’s choice to eschew visual flourishes enatils that it comes across as televisual. There are no visual flourishes or the sense it demands to be shown on the big screen. Perhaps this is to limit distractions and focus the audience’s attention on the performances and carefully chosen details. The one splash of eye-catching color is the cherry blossom outside the Ueno family home which links to Sakura’s character development with the tree being a perfect metaphor for the young woman. The seasons change, the cherry blossoms bloom just as Sakura changes and moves on with her life as she says goodbye to her childhood. 

The film is at its liveliest in the nursery scenes which have a documentary feel. It’s an immediacy that comes from the fact that Miyazaki shot in an actual nursery using actual pupils who are as bouncy and energetic as they like. Having been acting since a young age, Fukuda ably portrays the different facets of Sakura’s character and has good chemistry with the actors portraying her parents, particularly Kobayashi as the sympathetic mother. 

Oblique in its exploration of character motivations and minimalist in style, this is a film where actions are carefully chosen so they speak louder than words. At 63 minutes, the film knows exactly what it wants to say and not a moment is wasted as each scene and character action has a purpose. It demands that viewers be perceptive to minor details to make connections with every element shown on screen. Good-bye may not be overly eye-catching but it shows that Miyazaki has a good grasp of directing and a bright future ahead of her.

Good-bye was shown at the Osaka Asian Film Festival on March 9 and 14.