Tremble All You Want (Japan, 2017) [JAPAN CUTS 2018]

Adapted from Risa Wataya’s novel, director Akiko Ohku’s feature Tremble All You Want is an offbeat film that subverts traditional romantic comedy conventions, featuring a protagonist who is as frustrating as she is endearing. Yoshika (Mayu Matsuoka) has had a crush on Ichimiya (Takumi Kitamura), whom she calls “Ichi” (One), since she was in eighth grade. Now a 24-year-old office worker, she cannot move on, But things begin to shift when a work colleague, whom she calls “Ni” (Two) (Daichi Watanabe) expresses an interest in her.

Yoshika delivers existential monologues to a range of local eccentrics, including a man who fishes all day by a bridge and a waitress with an alluring blonde bob who works at an American-style diner. The film experiments with time and the nature of reality, showcasing moments in which viewers may question what is real and what is not. Her fantasies infiltrate her present, as well as her past (through “flashbacks”). But Ohku keeps things lighthearted, even including a musical number.

The film’s stylization fits with its themes. For example, when Yoshika plays ping pong, she is backlit and framed in shadow as professional athletes sometimes are on television. The mise-en-scène is also carefully chosen. At a turning point, Yoshika carries some belongings in a Toysa Fireworks box. The rich sound design fits with this whimsical world. In one memorable instance, Ni reels in an imaginary fishing line, and we hear ratcheting.

All comedic moments are smart, the product of Yoshika’s quirks and obsessions. When Yoshika goes out with Ni and he says she can pick the place, she takes him to a deafening club where talking is futile. And that’s just the way she wants it, since she is unable to commit to anyone besides Ichi. Moments of tension similarly emerge organically out of the cluelessness of the characters. For example, in a particularly tense yet funny scene, Ni follows Yoshika and Ichi into an elevator. While Ohku crams a lot into this, and one of Yoshika’s lies, which leads her to quit her job, feels too extreme as to be out of place, ultimately the strength of the film lies in the characters. From small quirks (Ni constantly applies chapstick) to potentially dangerous obsessions, the characters are colorful and relatable.

While it would be easy to write off Yoshika’s quirks as gimmicky, they are essential to the plot. She reads about extinct animals on Wikipedia before receiving a delivery of an ammonite fossil. At one point, she asks, to no one in particular, “Should I go extinct? Hey, ammonite, tell me how to survive.” She and Ichi end up bonding over a mutual love of extinct animals, an interest so coincidental that for a moment it feels like this couple may be “meant to be.” They bond over these “twisted creatures,” but Yoshika’s obsession with Ichi comes crashing down when Ichi reveals he doesn’t know her name.

Indeed, names are a motif throughout. Yoshika takes the name of a classmate who living abroad to make a new social media account in order to plan a class reunion so that she can run into Ichi. A neighbor tells her names are very important, but Yoshika can’t help but refer to her flute-playing neighbor as “Ocarina,” after the instrument she plays out her window. How names are used say a lot about a character. Ni refers to Yoshika as Eto-san, Ms. Eto, and similarly refers to her friend by her last name as well.

While much of the film plays as comedy, there are real moments of vulnerability. Yoshika’s lack of self-worth becomes evident. She shares her perspective on social media, saying, “I’m not brave enough to post things about someone as useless as me.” Yoshika’s lack of self-awareness is frustrating, but that seems to be the whole point of the film. At one point she critiques her friend’s word choice, saying, “Snubbing?’ This isn’t Grade 8.” At another point she exclaims, that Ni “has the nerve to just show up in my life and wants to stroll into it with his damn shoes on!” As she realizes the extent of her physical and emotional distance from everyone, her confusion and rage become palpable.

In a climax that upends conventions by subverting the cliché of a couple reuniting in the rain, Yoshika and Ni yell and express the anxieties of contemporary young professionals. When Yoshika laments that she hasn’t accomplished anything professionally, Ni says, “No one in the world accomplishes anything at our age.” When she replies, “Joan of Arc!” he shoots back with, “Don’t try to win this by saying something crazy.”

Ultimately, this unique film avoids clichés by focusing on a character whose quirks are not simply humorous, but rather derive from the fears and vulnerabilities she tries so hard to mask. The result is a memorable meditation on youthful anxiety and love.

Tremble All You Want is showing on July 28 at JAPAN CUTS.