Koji Segawa’s entry in this year’s Raindance International Feature competition is a profound look at marriage, loneliness, and the human psyche, all through the lens of restrictive Japanese society.
Mariko Mitsui is a housewife that hates and is hated in turn. Her mouth is permanently curved downwards in disappointment; her thoughts equally unsavoury as she constantly berates her friends and family inwardly for flaws that, at times, are merely exaggerated negative opinions. But what goes around does come around – her husband Tomoharu avoids her, her ex-colleagues have also excommunicated her, and her boss at work takes lechery and voyeurism to new, sickening heights. Amidst this chaos, Mariko begins to steadily spiral into psychosis and paranoia, and the line between reality and delusion begins to blur beyond recognition.
So goes Swaying Mariko, the new, 65-minute feature from Koji Segawa, who also makes his directorial debut with this film. The title is revealed early on to be a double entendre – the titular protagonist oscillates mentally between decisions, moods, and committing a singular life-changing act; while also swaying physically, in excellently choreographed dream sequences that convey the visceral sensations of paranoia and mind-numbing hatred through movement rather than words. Swaying Mariko, much like its own storyline, is a balancing act between what film can convey through words and thoughts, and how much more that the medium can convey through physicality alone. Segawa’s masterful writing certainly plays a huge part in this – at the end of the movie, viewers are left wondering how much onscreen was merely taking place in the darkest corners of Mariko’s psyche, and how much was truly happening.
powerful in its exploration of social connections in the modern age
It is the shockingly hostile, yet wholly plausible nature of every character in Swaying Mariko that allows for this shrewd examination of modern humanity. Set amidst Tokyo’s muted, monochromatic backdrop, viewers will be hard-pressed to find any shreds of compassion and empathy in Swaying Mariko’s desolate landscape. While walking to work, Mariko stops to help a businesswoman gather some papers she dropped, only to have them snatched away from her, and to be thanked by way of a hostile glare and a click of the tongue. The customers at the batting centre Mariko works at are relentlessly misogynistic, taking any opportunity they can to berate one of Mariko’s younger colleagues, Yoshimi, solely for the pleasure of making a woman squirm with discomfort. Their manager, too, has a clear grudge against Mariko, and the terrifying act of violence he commits halfway through the film proves to be the straw that breaks Mariko’s sanity once and for all. Outside work, Mariko can find no solace either – her husband Tomoharu can barely even stand to look at her; their marriage visibly a loveless one, while attempts to reconnect with old friends only result in shame and embarrassment at being labelled a “stalker”. Each and every social transgression in the film is hardly alien to our own social landscapes, especially in societies as rigid and industrious as Japan. It is this strange intimacy that the film’s themes have with our own lives that allows Swaying Mariko to be so powerful in its exploration of social connections in the modern age, and Segawa’s careful crafting of each individual in the film is a masterclass in hard-hitting, postmodern character studies.
a subversion of the current norms in contemporary Japanese cinema and literature
The unconventional choice to have physicality play a huge part in the denouement of the film is another factor that makes Swaying Mariko a refreshing watch. The bleak, washed-out white skyscrapers of Tokyo and its grey, empty streets and bridges bring Mariko’s insanity to the forefront, as she stumbles and sways through the city, assaulted and insulted. Chise Ushio should certainly be lauded for her powerful performance as Mariko, both for her compelling yet subtle condescension and vitriol, which oozes to the surface with every move she makes, as well as her utilisation of both the standard Japanese accent as well as the harsher Kansai dialect, which serves as an astute comment on the dichotomy between private lives and public appearance in a socially restrictive society. The sound design also effectively conveys her pain through its clamouring, claustrophobic nature, and as the film builds to its climax back in Mariko’s home, viewers will certainly be left on edge as the suspense builds terrifically. Even though the tension finally proves to be anticlimactic, due to Swaying Mariko’s incongruously optimistic ending, Segawa’s final aim is still achieved – to create a portrait of frustrated, broken characters, but to provide a feeling of resolution at the end, in a subversion of the current norms in contemporary Japanese cinema and literature.
Swaying Mariko is, all in all, a triumph. Although it fails to provide a true cinematic experience due to some botched sound editing, Segawa’s tale of loneliness, depression, and the fleeting nature of communication in the modern age is highly relevant, and will certainly prove a thought-provoking watch for introspective viewers everywhere.
‘Swaying Mariko’ is now playing at the Raindance Film Festival 2017, taking place from 20th September to 1st October. Information and tickets here.
Image: Raindance Film Festival 2017