Wednesday, July 02, 2008

Strawberry Shortcakes

Misleadingly described as a "Japanese Sex and the City" in the NYAFF promotional materials, Strawberry Shortcakes is nothing of the kind -- it is a quiet multi-character narrative about four women living in Tokyo (the number four and the urban setting being the only things that even remotely resemble SATC) that is an achingly sad, funny, sweet, painful and joyful reflection on being female.

Rather than four friends, we have two sets of friends, or rather, two sets of women whose lives bump up against one another in some capacity, forcing them into an acquaintanceship and tentative friendship. They are not confident in their relationships to one another, they don't giggle and shop and talk about boys; they very cautiously interact in ways that demonstrate a desire for deeper friendship but don't coalesce immediately. These women are too complex to form fast alliances -- some are prickly, some secretive, some obtuse, some too absorbed in dramas of their own making, some simply a little too weird. All of them, in fact, are a little of these things.

There are two roommates, an artist, Toko, and an office girl, Chihiro, who form one pair of women. The other set is comprised of a call girl and a receptionist (Akiyo and Satoko) who work in an escort agency (named Heaven's Gate!). I have to admit to liking the roommate story better than the call girl/receptionist story, though the second pair is just as funny and bizarre: the receptionist especially is a wonderful comic actress, and the character of the call girl is extremely intriguing -- she changes completely when not at work, to the point where I didn't recognize her at first -- and I imagined a whole unspoken narrative for her.

But back to my roommates. The character of Toko is amazingly intense. She works night and day, pouring her blood, sweat and tears into her book-cover illustrations; she's was bulimic, and the scenes where she induces vomit made me imagine was the effort of creation that drove her to it -- suddenly I understood the bulimia angle as a metaphor for the creative process, a process so intense it can be literally gut-wrenching, can literally take everything out of you and leave you empty inside. One of her toilet monologues is particularly intense to watch. She's just returned from a meeting with her publisher, whose assistant has lost an original illustration. The publisher tells her she'll need to "whip off" another right quick since the book has to go to press. The look on Toko's face when they tell her this is amazing. She looks steadily at the assistant and says, "I'll do another one, but I want a proper apology." The assistant stammers out something insincere, looking at the ground. Toko leaves the publisher's office and promptly faints (landing on a poster of a beach scene, a great touch). Once home she spills her guts to the john, sobbing, "I would have drawn another one if you'd apologized, if you'd apologized through your tears I would have drawn you a million more."

So yeah, clearly I love this character even though she's kind of mean to her roommate (and commits several egregious acts of privacy invasion like reading her diary and jerking off on her bed) because she's just so damn intense and obsessed with her work and full of energy and anger. And I just love that metaphor.

But then I loved her roommate, too. At first glance, you could dismiss the girl. Eager, even desperate, to get a boyfriend and eventually get married, she obsesses over guys, lets them treat her like a doormat, and feng shuis her room to attract love. She writes silly things in her diary like, "This Lancome eye cream isn't bad, I think I'll buy it again," laments her astrological incompatibility with her beau and goes shoe shopping to when she's sad. Nobody calls her on her birthday, save one booty call that ends up being, shall we say, a rather degrading experience. She puts up with everybody's crap with a smile that makes you wonder just how stupid she is. And then, under it all, is this wonderful stoicism and honesty. She demands her boyfriend utter the words, "Let's break up" when she needs closure, and confronts her roommate when she feels she's being looked down upon: "Do you find my problems boring? Get off your high horse." Hers is the plight of the office girl -- she may feel longing and pain as intensely as her artist friend but she doesn't get to be all wacky self-indulgent and over the top about it. When she finds Toko kissing the porcelain god one day, Chihiro ignores her pleas to be left alone and puts her arms around her. There is depth and strength to this character that you don't immediately suspect, and she made a great counterpoint to Toko.

We don't learn a lot about these women; in fact, the film takes pains to obscure and elide the most critical dramatic moments in their stories -- the showdowns, the conflicts, the confrontations. We glimpse things here and there and the mind fills in the rest. The final scene is a beautiful one, one that hints at the deeper friendships they have finally formed. The two sets of friends have gathered together on the beach under disparate circumstances, and Toko notices her lost illustration, recovered from a lost and found and framed, given as a present from Satoko to Akiyo. You expect a meeting or confrontation, but don't get it. Instead you get a rock thrown into the sea. The rock, by the way, is god, and Akiyo, who throws it into the sea, announces, "I don't need god."

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