Mari and Mari (Japan, 2021) [JAPAN CUTS 2021]

With a mission to marry and unleash the creative talents of filmmakers and musicians, MOOSIC LAB has quickly established itself as one of Japan’s foremost labels for quirky and interesting indie films made on a shoestring budget. Although POP! won the Grand Prix and Best Actress Award at the MOOSIC LAB 2020-2021 awards, runner-up prize-winning film Mari and Mari is the first to make the transition to the international festival circuit with its streaming slot at JAPAN CUTS 2021.

Marrying disquieting music by Rei Miyamoto, a violinist in the popular Kansai band “Vampillia,” with a quasi-mystery storyline and eerie atmospherics created by newbie feature film writer-director Tatsuya Yamanishi, Mari and Mari presents an ambiguous relationship drama which will either intrigue or frustrate viewers.

We follow mild-mannered, thirty-year-old Norio (Kou Maehara), whose life comes unstuck one fateful summer to reveal all is not as it seems. As a valued member of a casting company, he has one foot comfortably in the showbiz world and, after work, enjoys a blissful domestic life shared with Mari (Nao), his girlfriend of three years. Their quotidian routine consists of strolling hand-in-hand along riverbanks and lolling around in comfort at home. Laughter and affection mark their time together at the end of each day as they are bathed in the warmth of the red rays of the setting evening sun. This sight of settled perfection induces feelings of envy in all around Norio and he can only respond by smiling bashfully. He seems to enjoy the attention while never really letting people into his private life. 

Disruption comes one evening when Norio returns home to his small apartment to find a strange woman (Hana Amano) asleep in the shadowy confines of the sitting room. She may answer to the name Mari but when she rouses at his presence and opens a curtain, she reveals that she is not the Mari he knows. This sleepy young woman seems to have “replaced” Norio’s girlfriend. Her appearance and his girlfriend’s disappearance are a mystery. Adding to the confusion is this languid interloper’s insistence that she will be living in his apartment from now on and she has no answers for any of Norio’s questions.

Ostensibly driving the film forward is Norio’s search for his girlfriend and his dealings with this new young woman, who is essentially an amnesiac but follows the same routines as the original Mari. This situation creates conflict as Norio’s behavior deteriorates and his everyday life goes off-kilter. His obsession with finding out the truth to the whereabouts of the missing Mari is fuelled effectively by glimpses of his girlfriend in dreams, conversations with co-workers envious of his old relationship, and with her sister who paints a picture of a more capricious person than Norio ever perceived. These discoveries inform what seems to be the subtext of the film, which is the artificiality of the life Norio leads.

As Norio works through a light mystery, he learns things that go against his idealized image of his partner that he persists on clinging on to. This coupled with his tumultuous on-off relationship with his houseguest produce moments that reveal even more juicy titbits such as the fact that his parents had never met the original Mari and that he prefers to keep people at a distance. It all points to the idea that he never truly knew her his girlfriend or, at least, didn’t care to see complications and preferred a person who fit a simple image that meshed with his own lifestyle. That Norio is a casting agent and there is the change in actress in the lead role is very telling in a meta-cinema way. That he can slowly adjust to a change in casting with regards to Mari leads to the disturbing idea that he isn’t so much chasing the genuine person who was his partner as it is more about capturing a person who matches his ideal image of a girlfriend.  

This is one interpretation as Yamanishi never fully commits to explaining anything. Indeed, this may be a point of frustration for some viewers, especially since the ending suggests a deeper exploration of how people engage in superficial relationships, something which is implicitly touched upon throughout the narrative with subplots involving inter-office affairs, casting calls and Norio’s own behavior.

Whatever the conclusions viewers draw from Yamanishi’s story, there is no doubt that he has a strong sense for visual storytelling that keeps engagement high. With great command of shadow and light, he creates an atmosphere reminiscent of Kiyoshi Kurosawa that gifts a supernatural edge to the story, a la Daguerreotype (2016). The languidness of summer and the tumultuous effects of rainy season seem appropriate for a film about all of the changes that happen under the surface of Norio’s life. Aside from some nice urban shots of characters smoking on rooftops, the blandness of the suburban settings also lends itself to the idea that Norio would like to maintain that tranquil setting. Whether the new or old Mari will let him keep his tranquillity is questioned right until the very end.

Mari and Mari was streamed in the U.S. from August 20 to September 2 as part of JAPAN CUTS: Festival of New Japanese Film.