College student Haru Kitagawa (Hikari Mitsushima) has found herself in a bit of a rut: her relationship with boyfriend Ryoto (Tasuku Nagaoka) – who is in turn cheating on his own partner – is in tatters, devoid of any love and existing only for the purpose of sex. Day by day she sullenly walks through life, unable to express her own emotions, until one day, things take a sudden turn.
Whilst enjoying a cappuccino in a local café, Haru is spied by a gangly young woman named Rika (Eriko Nakamura), a complete antithesis in her overall belief of taking chances, who quickly introduces herself and confesses her immediate attraction toward the girl. She tells Haru that she’s a “medical artist”, sculpting prosthetic body part replacements for victims of diseases or accidents. She sees in Haru a sense of longing, and by bringing her own philosophy to the table she hopes to cure her of her feelings of inadequacy. The pair quickly strike up a friendship, which soon sees Haru break away from the drudgery of her predictable life and embrace new experiences.
Momoko Ando is amongst the latest in a generation of film directors who are using the medium to address the issues of identity crisis commonly associated amongst a large portion of young Japanese citizens: those who are afraid to speak out for themselves as they struggle to break away from a strict code of conformity. As a resurgence within the Japanese film industry, then, one can’t help but take stock of such an inevitable series of thematically-linked commentaries which often concern themselves with repressed protagonists who are partaking in journeys of self discovery, set within such an imitable environment. As a tool of communication, it’s clear that directors like Ando hope to one day break through imposed barriers, by bringing to light serious issues which continue to see the country stuck in an endless cycle of uncertainty when it comes to those charged to lead its future.
Themes of seizing opportunities, finding love and being at ease with one’s self provide the basic framework for Ando’s Kakera, adapted from Erika Sakurazawa’s short manga ‘Love Vibes’, and partially based upon some of the director’s own personal experiences. Her debut outing is certainly an admirable one; a film of passion and self-conviction, which carries its message succinctly via a partially sombre tone and quirky cutaways. As a film essentially dealing with an awkward love triangle (or even quadrangle as it later opens up), and one which happens to have at its heart two women falling in love with one another, Ando excels in her refusal to exploit obvious taboo areas by instilling the belief that love is love and gender plays no discernable role. It’s a fresh quality helmed with a Shunji Iwai-like elegance, one which sees such youthful ideology take a positive step toward fighting particular prejudices toward relationships, without resorting to preaching or sentimental cues. Conversely her look at the loveless and male-dominated relationship shared between Haru and Ryota is one of general discomfort in its paving the way for some of the film’s more impending moments, with the hope of escape feeling like an impossibility as it drives home another important issue.
It’s through the intertwining of these components, however, that Kakera falls slightly off balance at times: disquieting moments of abuse, self-loathing and overcoming physical and emotional scars are countered with arty metaphors and light humour, which despite sincere intentions occasionally leaves the picture a little distant the more frustration sets in. But perhaps it’s all part of the point, further noted by its eschewing of the rebellious nature which often inflicts itself upon similar dramas of its type. There’s nothing particularly grandiose here, these women aren’t fighting against any system as such, but rather themselves; that through the hearts of others they can receive affirmation and take the next positive steps in life. Such emotional complexities aren’t easily conveyed, but Momoko Ando chooses to keep things as grounded in reality as possible, even if that means the journey isn’t as strictly entertaining as we might expect.
Kakaera is a confident debut feature from Momoko Ando, one which portrays a familiarly superficial environment through which lost souls find themselves struggling to navigate. As a result it’s a picture of ups and downs and any feel-good sentiments it might give way to are rather downplayed in their poignancy. Some viewers, then, may not find a particularly “entertaining” film per se, but regardless its message is succinct and we’d do well to heed to its advice.