A/B side VIBES. Greatest Hits from ‘80s & ‘90s
Japan, 1997, 89’, Japanese
Directed by: Suwa Nobuhiro
Screenplay: Suwa Nobuhiro, Nakamura Kumi
Photography (color): Tamura Masaki
Editing: Oshige Yuji
Art Direction: Isomi Toshihiro
Music: Nick Wood
Producers: Kobayashi Koji, Sento Takanori
Cast: Yu Eri, Nishijima Hidetoshi, Watanabe Makiko, Nakamura Kumi
Date of First Release in Territory: August 2nd, 1997
Released in 1997, Suwa Nobuhiro’s 2/Duo depicts a young couple’s stormy love affair in a semi-documentary style, with the director, off camera, interviewing them twice each in the course of the film. Suwa, who had made documentaries for television before shooting this, his first feature, decided to ditch his completed script and, following intensive discussions with his actors, allow them to improvise their lines on camera.
The resulting drama, with its two principals – a struggling actor (Nishijima Hidetoshi) and a saleswoman (Yu Eri) at a trendy boutique – baring their raw feelings in scenes of rage and reconciliation, reminded some contemporary viewers of John Cassavetes (who carefully scripted his spontaneous-sounding dialogue). Francophile Suwa’s real inspiration, however, was French New Wave director Jacques Rivette, particularly his 1968 L’amour fou, which tracks the disintegration of the relationship between a theater director and his wife during rehearsals for a stage production being recorded by a documentary crew.
But coming from an unknown Japanese filmmaker, working with two unknown actors (though Nishijima was later to become a major star, appearing in the Academy Award winner Drive My Car), 2/Duo felt totally fresh, as well as shocking, to this writer on its first release, with its turbulent emotions threatening to spill out of the screen. Seen today, the film plays almost like a case study of domestic abuse, with the man, Kei, behaving violently, from shouting to slamming objects to the floor, and, in the next moment, apologizing abjectly to the woman, Yu.
Though Yu also tosses things about, the balance of scary physical power is clearly in Kei’s favor, though he never actually strikes her. And his emotional manipulation wears on her. This crack saleswoman with a winning smile and perky manner is finally reduced to a state of tears, whispers and, at work, black silence.
The proximate cause of the couple’s turmoil, which unfolds almost entirely in their small apartment, is Kei’s disappointment at landing a big role and being told, while he is getting ready to go on camera, that his scene has been cut. Soon after, meeting Yu for lunch, he asks her to marry him, but it comes out like a shouted command. Taken aback, she tries to laugh off his proposal, but later, in the apartment, his anger boils over – and never completely subsides thereafter.
The true problem with this pair, as their interviews reveal, is an inability to communicate. To the unseen interviewer, Kei confesses that he “hasn’t done much” as an actor and is thinking of quitting. Marriage might offer a new start, he believes. But something – masculine pride, no doubt – prevents him from being as straightforward with Yu.
Also, Yu tries to put up an all-is-well front with her friends, while feeling trapped between her love for Kei and her desire to escape. The latter finally wins out – or does it?
Cinematographer Tamura Masaki, who shared a documentary background with Suwa, shoots more for immediacy than formally correct compositions. But he is also not just chasing the action with a handheld camera. Instead he makes choices, such as shooting only the back of Kei’s head in the marriage proposal scene, that are unconventional but striking and suggestive – and leave the exact interpretation up to the viewer.
As does the ending, which goes well with a film that refuses to fit into any of the usual boxes, including happy-ever-after romance. But nearly three decades after its debut, 2/Duo has gained in stature as a masterwork of Japan’s own 1990s New Wave.
Suwa Nobuhiro (b. 1960, Hiroshima) began making independent films while a student at Tokyo Zokei University. After graduating, Suwa worked with leading indie directors Ishii Sogo and Yamamoto Masashi. In 1997 he made his featured debut with the relationship drama 2/Duo. His 1999 M/Other won the FIPRESCI Prize at Cannes. His 2001 H Story was a bilingual French-Japanese drama set in Hiroshima. Suwa’s subsequent films Un couple parfait (2005), Paris, je t’aime (2006) and Yuki & Nina (2009) were shot partly or entirely in France. He returned to Japan for his most recent film, the 2020 road movie Voices in the Wind.
1997 – 2/Duo
1999 – M/Other
2001 – H Story
2005 – Un couple parfait
2006 – Paris je t’aime
2009 – Yuki & Nina
2017 – The Lion Sleeps Tonight
2020 – Voices in the Wind