The Many Faces of Chika (Japan, 2005)

From June 4 to July 2, 2021, Japan Society’s retrospective “Cinema as Struggle: The Films of Kazuo Hara and Sachiko Kobayashi” celebrates the 50th Anniversary of Shisso Productions, Hara and Kobayashi’s independent film company. They have devoted all but one of their productions to documentary, the exception being their fiction feature debut The Many Faces of Chika.

During the very considerable gap between A Dedicated Life (1994), their last full-fledged documentary in the twentieth century, and their return to documentary filmmaking in the twenty-first century with Sennan Asbestos Disaster (2017),[1] filmmaking partners Kazuo Hara and Sachiko Kobayashi ventured into fiction filmmaking with The Many Faces of Chika, with Kobayashi penning the screenplay and Hara taking on the directorial position. It remains their sole foray into the fictional realm and therefore prompts some consideration. Structured into four chapters, the film follows the titular protagonist from the 1960s to the 1970s in Japan, with the notable aspect of different actresses portraying Chika in each chapter of her life. Chapter titles denote Chika and the primary man with whom she lives, loves, or socialises, yet what remains constant is her sense of being her own person, which is tinged by her past as a gymnast whose future as an Olympian was shattered when she fell during a balance beam routine at the 1964 Tokyo Olympics. That is the story on a micro, individual level. On a macro and sociopolitical level, however, the story is of postwar Japan and, most prominently, the devolution of the student activist, leftist, revolutionary movement into terrorist-anarchic acts in Japan and around the world, which Chika’s fall at the Tokyo Olympics can be read as neatly symbolising. Scattered throughout the film are snippets of archival footage of student protests from 1960 and 1969, the 1972 Asama-Sanso incident, and the 1974 Mitsubishi Industries bombing. Altogether, what sounds compelling on paper ends up being a lackluster work in comparison with the spiritedness of their documentary works, with the historical context much more striking than Chika’s narrative and the connection between them underdeveloped at best.

Without much rhyme or reason, Chika floats through life in Japan during a very tumultuous period. The first chapter, “Chika and Yoshio,” begins strikingly enough with black-and-white archival footage of student protest in Tokyo, June 1960 and fast-forwards to the 1964 Tokyo Olympics where Chika’s (Takami Yoshimoto) gymnastics career ends. What follows in an anti-climactic manner is her easing into married and parenting life with Yoshio (Hidetaka Yoshioka) and the routine of working as a physical education teacher at a secondary school. Yet a dark lining to domestic life surfaces with Yoshio being diagnosed with an illness and Chika’s disclosed feelings of unease. The second chapter, “Chika and Kazuya,” nicely feeds into this unease since it concerns an affair between Chika and a fellow physical education teacher at her workplace, which continues even after Yoshio returns home after an extended hospital stay. It is also in this chapter that an insert of footage of the Asama-Sanso incident appears intermittently. One culmination of the aforementioned devolution of the left in Japan was precisely this incident, which put an end to the militant organisation known as Rengo Sekigun, or United Red Army. Already wanted by authorities, the discovery of killings of a dozen of Rengo Sekigun members by other members at their headquarters during intense self-criticism led to the splintering of the group and the further intensification of the police hunt for them. Remaining members sought refuge in a lodge near Mount Asama in Honshu and for over a week staved off the police. The police eventually broke into the lodge and found the last members after a protracted encounter, which riveted television audiences as everything was happening. Clips of news footage puncture the kind of love triangle between Chika, Yoshio, and Kazuya, as if to heighten the emotion of it, but the effect is sadly more of indifference.

Interestingly enough, one can read chapter three, “Chika and Koji,” as carrying on this wave of indifference regarding Chika’s subsequent choices and attitude. Chika (Kumija Kim[2]) by this time has left Yoshio and their son Junichi, living a down-and-out life with Kazuya, and fleeing creditors. Serendipitously, she reencounters a student from the secondary school where she had taught, Koji (Yoshikazu Kotani), who had opted out of the education circuit and joined his sister’s militant “animal liberation” organisation. Both make up their minds to leave their respective situations, with plans to eventually move down south to a small island. As in chapter two, insert of news footage appears here, this time of the Mitsubishi Heavy Industries bombing, which left eight dead and was perpetrated by the radical leftist organisation known as Higashi Ajia Hannichi Buso Sensen, or East Asia Anti-Japan Armed Front.[3] But before they are able to realise their plans, they part due to Koji’s sister. Just as serendipitously, in chapter four, “Chika and Segawa,” Chika (Kaori Momoi) finds herself in fact moving to a small southern island after leaving her post in a bar and begining a relationship with Segawa (Isao Natsuyagi), a regular at the bar, despite her co-worker’s warning to not get involved with him due to a violent occurrence in his past. But less serendipitously and more shockingly, she herself becomes caught in this violence with Segawa.

On a basic level of the micro and macro feeding into each other, the film recalls a film by Hara’s mentor Shohei Imamura, The Insect Woman (1963), which follows a woman from a poor family living, working, and surviving her way through pre- to post-Asia Pacific War Japanese society to the best of her individual ability, no matter the setbacks or hardships constantly encountered along the way. The micro- and macro-levels of story pull at each other so that the world of the film is a neverending bustle of human activity, endearing, off-putting, absurd, and/or a combination thereof, presented in Imamura’s affectionate, raw, and slightly tongue-in-cheek style of realism, such that the energy spills out from the screen onto the spectator’s lap, including that of its own titular character. Unfortunately, a similar energy is lacking in Chika, a lack that makes its own micro- and macro- levels of story lethargic and the characters more antipathetic than they actually are, including Chika. While characters do not have to be emotionally accessible or transparent to be interesting, ideally there should be some figurative dimensionality or volume to them to capture/maintain spectatorial attention. In place of that here is an emotional and psychological flatness of characters, which then spreads to the situations in which they find themselves. The macro-level of story nicely injects a kind of dynamic context to the micro-level of Chika’s trajectory and the men in her life, but it does so in too muted or misdirected a way that makes the connection between the micro and macro flimsy, if not non-existent.

To its credit, one could also argue that the muted nature of the historical context is to the film’s advantage in that it does not overdetermine the characters as merely pawns of history, without individual will or personality; but it then begs the question of why place emphasis on the historical context in the first place? Yet the film’s most glaring detail is its lazy use of voiceover, featured early in chapter one (and contributing nothing to characterisation or mood) and never heard from again. In their own way, the chapter titles are also counterproductive in that Chika is ultimately her own person, regardless of any man, but whose characterisation is drawn too thinly and inchoate.

[1] Not counting My Mishima (1999), a collaborative documentary effort between Hara, Kobayashi, and film students.

[2] It was Kim’s final screen performance before passing away in 2004.

[3]  The organisation staged the bombing to protest the company’s complicity in the Vietnam War by providing raw materials to the United States.