POP! (Japan, 2021) [OAFF 2021]

POP! was part of the line-up of MOOSIC LAB 2020-2021 at the Osaka Asian Film Festival. Like entries in the festival’s previous editions, it pairs together up-and-coming movie and music talents to create a film where music plays a large part in the proceedings, whether through being performed on screen or through a prominent soundtrack. Due to the different combinations of creatives, the results tend to be unique and a good showcase of the strengths of all involved.

Making his debut feature with POP! is Masashi Komura, a relatively new filmmaker who has a number of credits across disciplines from co-writing the screenplay for The Man Who Was Eaten (2016), writing and directing LEO (2017), and appearing in Ken Ninomiya’s The Matsumoto Tribe (2017). His script and direction for POP! create a quirky coming-of-age tale of a young woman experiencing existential drift as she stands on the cusp of adulthood. The final result is a mixed bag of ideas and one that requires patience, but it’s sense of uniqueness and the score by DJ/producer Aru-2 make it highly atmospheric.

The story taps into the existential crisis experienced by Rin Kashiwakura (Rina Ono), a wannabe actress about to enter her 20th year. Her career has become stuck in a rut since she works two part-time jobs: as an official mascot on a struggling local TV charity program and at a remote mountainside car park where she rarely sees others. Both jobs look unfulfilling for different reasons, most noticeably through the way she finds it difficult to interact with the adults around her. It also seems like she leads a solitary life with few friends. Just as she begins to wonder about her career, she begins to question if she will ever find love.

Change literally explodes into Rin’s dull days when she witnesses a serial bomber in action as he is in the middle of a campaign of planting bento box bombs around her city. Blown out of her inertia, she begins to track the sites of the bombings and discovers that they form the shape of a heart once they are all put on a map. Her encounter with this mad bomber inspires her to question what she wants to do with her adult life but answers are not all that easy to come by.

POP! takes its time to wander through Rin’s existential crisis as she wavers between being an adult and a teen. The film is built upon patterns of repetition and variation that are used to show how Rin is worn down by stultifying interactions and also how she pieces together enough confidence to move forward through seeing the examples of those around her and getting odd bits of advice that only make sense at the end. This may sound like a backhanded compliment but Komura captures that sense of confusion and lethargy that comes with an existential crisis. He creates a collage of situations that initially seem unconnected, from dating to bombings, and shoots these situations in long sequences, which are washed over by the downtempo, lo-fi music of Aru-2. These lazy beats, hazy samples, and various audio imperfections are indicative of both what a person Rin’s age might listen to and also how she feels. When combined, this experience is, at times, frustrating, tiring, and confusing. However, there is also a lot of humour and heart as Rin struggles to make sense of things.

Audiences may be split as to whether it works but the atmosphere is strong while some surreal moments and comedic characters make it engaging. Its seeming randomness and slow pace lulls one into a sense of longing, angst, stagnation, and frustration. These are all emotions which are felt strongly in adolescence, so relate Rin’s experiences quite powerfully. Visually, there is plenty of symbolism, such as a broken-down car in the car park which represents Rin’s stalled life and the ironic distance between Rin’s heart-shaped costume and her lack of confidence. The camerawork is noticeably strong at certain points, such as the use of close-ups to exert a sense of exhaustion. Ono is likeable in the central role and conveys her character’s uncertainty in a restrained performance which also has touches of comedy when reacting to surreal moments.

As is fitting for a MOOSIC LAB film, the soundscape is utilized perfectly and forms the ideal accompaniment to the quiet struggle of an existential crisis. POP! may seem lost at times, but it’s mood mirrors the character’s progression. It’s certainly unique amongst coming-of age films, which is probably why it won the Grand Prix at the MOOSIC LAB awards with Ono also nabbing Best Actress honors.

POP! was shown at the Osaka Asian Film Festival on March 6.