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Out on an Artificial Limb

MOVIE REVIEW
Kakera: A Piece of Our Life (2010)

5024_2
ゼロ・ピクチュアズ

Haru (Hikari Mitsushima) has her own apartment and a university schedule she used to enjoy, but for the most part she is drifting. All her education should have been building up to something, but she no longer seems to know to what. Her ambivalence about her future has also infected her personal life: Her boyfriend bores her; she dresses sloppily; and when she first meets Riko (Eriko Nakamura) in the park, there’s an embarrassing incident over a tampon.

Riko still lives at home over her parents’ dry cleaners, and works for a medical company which hand-manufactures replacement body parts such as limbs, of course, but also ears and breasts. She explodes into Haru’s life like a mash note filled with confetti, but Haru is so passive that she only comes along for the ride. Their relationship is a source of happiness for both of them, but Haru can’t decide what it means to her.

The movie is based on a bestselling manga on the highbrow topic of teenage lesbians, has a score by former Smashing Pumpkins guitarist James Iha, and is the debut film of Momoko Andô, daughter of Japanese actor-director Eiji Okuda. Ms. Mitsushima is also a pop star in Japan, and a great deal of her role has been designed to titillate her young fans, such as the scenes of her in the toilet with unshaven armpits or just being badly dressed. The film looks as if it was made using real locations, with the cramped spaces and ever-present passersby reminding western viewers how important privacy and personal space are in everyday Japanese life. Ms. Andô seems most interested in exploring physical humiliations, such as when Haru chats away with a milk mustache, or Riko consults with a new client for a body part fitting.

It’s as if she didn’t know what to do with her most obvious material. Certainly western cinema hasn’t been this coy about lesbianism since Jon Avnet put his Sarah Lawrence background to shame with “Fried Green Tomatoes.” After a few initial kisses, nowhere near as life-altering as the ones in “Show Me Love” or “The Edge of Heaven,” Haru and Riko’s relationship settles down to the point where showing them in bed involves one of them in a sleeping bag on the floor. It’s not so much chaste as prepubescent. Even more oddly, Riko’s briefly-glimpsed grandparent is a man in drag, shown wordlessly closing a door and then never seen or discussed again. This creates not so much a heady cocktail of sexual/gender confusion instead of puzzlement. It’s fine for Haru to explore who she is and what she wants, but Ms. Andô has no idea what she wants the audience to feel about it.

She attended the Raindance Film Festival; and in the Q & A after the screening asked if the audience had noticed all the drag queens in her film, and then seemed surprised that we had. Are gender and questioning issues so shocking in Japan? But “Kakera: A Piece of Our Life” calls to mind no film more than “A Tale of Winter,” made in 1992 by Eric Rohmer, whose recent death is an enormous loss. The story of a young mother who has lost contact with the father of her child, and who cannot presently choose between two decent if dull boyfriends, it’s about her personal struggle to decide what kind of life she wants for herself and her little girl. The specificity about and interest in the people in Rohmer’s film made the story universal, which this film doesn’t manage to do. To say that Haru is coming out goes too far; it’s more that she is surprised to learn there is a closet in the first place. And despite many tearful arguments, we never really understand why Riko wants a relationship with her, either. This lack of feeling for the material makes this story less a cross section of life and instead a missed opportunity.

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