Japan, 2021, 117’, Japanese
Directed by: Yokohama Satoko
Script: Yokohama Satoko
Original Story: Koshigaya Osamu
Photography (color): Yanagishima Katsumi
Editing: Fushima Shinichi
Music: Watanabe Takuma
Producer: Matsumura Ryuichi
Executive Producer: Kawamura Hideki
Cast: Komai Ren, Toyokawa Etsushi, Nakajima Ayumu, Kurokawa Mei
Date of First Release in Territory: June, 2021
Movie trailers that give away key plot points are frequent targets of fan ire. But a film poster that telegraphs what may well be the ending is rather rare.
I don’t think, though, that Ito, Yokohama Satoko’s heartwarming drama set in her native Aomori Prefecture, is much harmed by the poster of its title heroine: Playing a shamisen in a maid’s costume as she jumps for joy, she seems to be signaling a peppy, cheer-up musical.
Which Ito definitely is not. Based on a 2011 novel by Koshigaya Osamu, it is instead that often-told story in the seishun eiga (“teen drama”) genre: Socially awkward teenaged girl rebels against her family and what might be called her destiny.
She is Ito (Komai Ren) – an old-fashioned name that she hates – who lives in Hirosaki, Aomori with her professor father (Toyokawa Etsushi) and shamisen-playing grandmother. Her mother, who died when she was five, was also a talented player of the Tsugaru shamisen – a vigorous, infectious style with roots in Aomori’s Tsugaru Peninsula.
Ito learned the shamisen by imitating her grandmother, but now never plays. She also takes zero interest in her father’s folklore studies. In other words, she first impresses as yet another persnickety teen in yet another drama about a troubled family.
But Yokohama, who also wrote the script, soon shows us another, odder side of her heroine. Journeying to Aomori City, Ito lands a job at a maid café in a dim corner of a rundown building. Though one of the many bent branches of Japan’s sex industry, the maid café, at least in this Aomori iteration, is more about the kawaii (cute) than the eroi (erotic). Ito and the other maids dress in frilly, modest uniforms and engage in sweet, ritualized banter with their “masters” (i.e., customers), most of whom are harmless, oddball guys. One rule, strictly enforced by the nice-guy barista (Nakajima Ayumu): No touching the maids.
Why does she do it? As she tells Sachiko (Kurokawa Mei), a sympathetic, straight-talking co-worker, she hopes the job will make her more self-confident and social. “I want to get better at talking,” she stumblingly says. She also wants to get away from home, with its pressures to follow in the footsteps of a mother she misses, but hardly remembers.
From this point on, it’s obvious that Ito will, somewhere along the line, become that shamisen-strumming girl in the poster or the audience, expecting musical entertainment, will feel massively cheated. And the film eventually obliges, though its focus stays on its heroine’s struggles to emerge from her shell – and deal with her personal loss and musical destiny.
As Ito, Komai Ren is playing a troubled teen similar to her breakout role in the 2018 drama The Name, but one shy almost to the point of muteness. I wondered if she might be taking it too far, slipping from charming gawkiness to tedious blankness. But Komai never loses sight of Ito’s inner life, from her deep love for her family to her stubborn desire to escape her shell. Her silence is of the quiet-but-active volcano kind.
So when Ito finally picks up the shamisen and plays with a fire true to the Tsugaru style, it feels natural and real, since we’ve sensed it all along. More than the grinning girl in the poster, Ito burns up the screen.
Born in Aomori Prefecture in 1978, Yokohama Satoko made her debut feature, Chiemi-chan to Kokkun Batcho (2005) after graduating from the Film School of Tokyo in 2004. For her follow-up, German + Rain (2007), she received the Directors Guild of Japan New Directors Award. Her international breakthrough was Bare Essence of Life (2009), a quirky drama/fantasy that played widely on the festival circuit. She has since made music videos, shorts, TV dramas and feature films, most recently the musically themed drama Ito, which was shot in her native Aomori.
2005 – Chiemi-chan to Kokkun Batcho
2007 – German + Rain
2009 – Bare Essence of Life
2016 – The Actor
2021 – Ito