Woman of the Photographs (Japan, 2020) [OAFF 2020]

Writer/director Takeshi Kushida makes his feature debut with Woman of the Photographs wherein a middle-aged photographer living a carefully controlled existence finds everything disrupted by the intrusion of a vivacious model. At 90 minutes, the film flies by but raises questions about how people get mired in the past and confused about how to perceive themselves. With wit, drama and some special effects, the film goes beyond its “opposites attract” scenario to become an absorbing drama about neuroses and love.

The photographer is Kai (Hideki Nagai), a near-silent man whom we come to understand through superb mise en scène. His studio, set up by his father, is a womb where time has stopped and he has become cocooned in his narrow passions as evidenced by the set dressing: old cameras that use film, a photography award from school dated 1982, a pet praying mantis and an encyclopedia of bugs. The atmosphere is inert and silent except for the clicks of Kai’s mouse and keyboard as he manipulates images that others bring to him. His routine is a reassuring cycle of familiar movements that gives his life order. However, this order is broken when, while on a bug shoot, he discovers Kyoko (Itsuki Otani), a model who ends up wedged in the branches of a tree above Kai after she loses her footing while posing for a photo on a hill.

It’s both an offbeat meet-cute and a painful entrance as Kyoko is left with a scar along her chest that is so hideous Kai wants to take her to a hospital. She turns him down, insisting on healing herself and getting back to taking pictures. In this brief interaction, key character details are revealed: Kyoko has a strong personality, earns money through her Instagram account and cultivating the ‘likes’ of her fans is important to her.

These qualities form a catalyst for change in Kai’s life when Kyoko manages to install herself in his studio. A weird battle of wills develops into a dark love story as her physical presence both irritates and attracts Kai. Meanwhile, his ability to manipulate her image opens up Kyoko’s dilemma about whether to present her true self to her fans, complete with the scar, or show off a fake ideal that can recapture the popularity she had earlier in her career as a ballet dancer. Just as Kai is stuck in the past, time has stopped for Kyoko but being around each other awakens empathy that leads to a love that might be redemptive an old man and younger woman who are connected by photographs. 

In a case of perfect casting, Seinendan theatre actor Nagai and real-life ballet dancer Otani spark off each other well. Nagai’s body exudes bellicose old man vibes as revealed in his gruff behavior which also carries the suggestion of a phobia, something reinforced by the presence of the male praying mantis. Kyoko’s physicality is alluring: her confidence and determination to succeed constitute a power that simmers away and is shown in the close-ups. Her uniquely angular face and shadowy eyes which have a real fire behind them.

Separate stories involving Kai’s customers, all of whom are just as much mired in the past, help elucidate the changes to the character arcs by offering mirroring situations. The almost comic obsession of a woman (Toki Koinuma) desperate to change her image to match a younger ideal she has in her head feeds into Kyoko’s battle over how she should present herself. The sad story of a funeral director (Toshiaki Inomata) provides a melancholy echo for Kai. Both stage actors, these supporting players deliver committed performances that are equal to the leads.

The film is atmospheric thanks to clear camera movement and framing which allow the actors’ body language to speak as they dance around each other and gradually learn to co-exist. We get sucked into their obsessions by special effects which emphasize certain things: the crazy trips into Instagram and the ecstasy adulation from being ‘followed’ leads to the screen being set ablaze with multi-colored lighting while trips into fantasies see wilder camera movement with match-cuts and fades used to make connections. The heightened sound effects serve to highlight performances and can be disturbing. As created by splatter film director Yoshihiro Nishimura, the prosthetic scar is truly gross when Kyoko manipulates it.

Precision and clarity define Woman of the Photographs, both in terms of its presentation and ideas. Through a combination of good performances and perfectly crafted aural and visual elements, Kushida’s has crafted a mature narrative that is always engaging.

Woman of the Photographs was shown at the Osaka Asian Film Festival on March 9 and 12.