Directed by: #YukikoSode
Written by: #YukikoSode
Amongst aristocrats in Japan, archaic gender expectations still rule women’s lives like an iron fist. It is their purpose to marry and produce heirs. Divorce is a sacrilege. One of Japan’s young up-and-coming directors Yukiko Sode’s newest film is an adaptation of Mariko Yamauchi’s book, examining two women’s lives in modern Japan. While not a completely convincing work, there are glimmers of hope throughout the film.
At twenty-seven, Hanako (Mugi Kadowaki) is considered a disappointment. Her relationship with her fiancé has ended, and her family are concerned that she’ll never get married or have children. In a masterful performance by Mugi Kadowaki, Hanako shyly goes along with her family’s suggestions. She goes on dates set up by her sisters, and she’s so desperate to find a husband that she doesn’t care if she has an arranged marriage. Yet, beneath the politeness, restraint and passivity, there is someone lurking behind that façade who doesn’t quite know what she wants. Her favourite film is the Wizard of Oz, but unlike Dorothy, she’s never left where she was born. She is the woman who hasn’t quite grown up.
Hanako is a captivating character, but as soon as the audience becomes familiar with her, we are whisked away to meet Miki Tokioka (Kiko Mizuhara). Although this break from Hanako is far too abrupt, Miki is the chalk to Hanako’s cheese. Unlike Hanako, she is poorer and comes from the provinces. Her aspirations are more about careers than husbands. The differences between Miki and Hanako are as vast as a gulf, yet the problems that they face have the same sources: society, gender and class.
Aristocrats is musing after musing. When Hanako sits with her friends for afternoon tea, they are shocked by her friend Itsuko (Shizuka Ishibashi) ’s unwillingness to settle down. When Miki is placed in the same situation, she is expected to pay 5,000 yen for afternoon tea. Discussions on societal expectation on class and gender bristle through this film and hint at threads of a more profound discussion. Yet, these critiques are only shallowly explored like a water skater skimming a lake. There’s a mediative slowness throughout. Despite the subject matter, this tranquillity is hardly ever disturbed. The calming nature is mirrored in the postcard-perfect cinematography of Tokyo and the perfectly soothing music. Rather than feeling at peace, these directorial choices feel unchallenging. There’s a bite and an edge that’s missing here. Without it, the film seems to be nothing more than a standard slice-of-life drama, even though it's reaching for the stars.
Undoubtedly, there’s promise glimmering in this depiction of Japan’s rigid aristocratic class. Mugi Kadowaki is a joy to watch as she plays a character shackled by passivity and social ritual. But, even with a script which is full of bold social commentary, Aristocrats seems scared to disrupt the status quo.