Naoko Ogigami: Obaa-chan saves the world

Speaking loudly
Speaking loudly

We men have been speaking loudly for centuries, and at last, we have spoken all we had to say. As the male-dominated mainstream pop-culture engages in a cannibalistic downward spiral of reboots, remakes, repeated cliches and post-modern irony, it becomes obviously clear that women are our only chance for saying something new and original.

As male-dominated societies go, Japan is often seen as an extreme among developed countries, but its culture, too, is currently being saved by active, creative, independent women, whether in visual arts, music or film. The “new wave” of Japanese female film directors started about a decade ago, and Naoko Ogigami is my favourite – and perhaps best known – of these.

Most fans of Japanese cinema will have heard of at least one of her movies: “Kamome Diner”, the whimsical tale of a Japanese woman opening a low-key diner in Helsinki. That sentence summarizes the movie’s entire plot: little else really happens in the story. Characters come and go, little self-contained vignettes happen to them or around them. Life goes on.

The same one-sentence summary may be applied to Ogigami’s other late movies – “Megane” and “Rent-a-neko”. A woman travels to a lonely guesthouse on a tropical island. A woman wanders the streets of a city renting cats to lonely passer-byes. There is more of a plot in her earlier work – “Yoshino’s Barber” is a proper story, with an established setting, character development and a denouement of sorts; the English-language “Toilet” is half-way there – there’s a plot, but very faintly drawn, with many of the threads forgotten or leading nowhere.

This is storytelling that will be familiar to those who enjoy Japanese film-making: from Yasujiro Ozu to Yoji Yamada, you can draw a straight line of directors who revel in telling non-stories, sketching non-events, portraying characters in blink-of-an-eye snapshots; the cinematic equivalent of those hanging scrolls, which would present an entire landscape in a few strokes of a brush.

Ogigami’s movies are all that, with a dash of Wes Anderson’s penchant for whimsy and magic realism, but with an added uniquely female perspective. You’ll have noticed that all the above summaries have one thing in common: a Japanese woman does something. The “Toilet” is the only exception to that rule, not just because the main characters are Canadian, but most of them are male; but even they are not your typical movie males: a cross-dresser, a suspected gay, an effete geek; one could easily call them “effeminate”, if the word didn’t have so many negative connotations. Rather, these are simply men drawn in the same subtle and original way as the women.

Most importantly, though, Ogigami’s women live in a world of female fantasy. And this is a dramatic change of pace from what most movie-goers are used to, which is, predominantly, a world of male fantasy. We are so used to seeing men in incredible, cliched situations, that we either completely ignore it, or, at best, shrug it off with an ironic smile.

Nobody wonders anymore about men of action withstanding multiple bullet wounds, chasing cars on foot, or being ever ready to sleep with beautiful women at their whim. These are male cliches that we take for granted, eagerly suspending our disbelief.

Ogigami asks us to suspend our disbelief to enjoy the fantasy shared by women not only in Japan. Her characters are all strong, independent, economically self-reliant – and single. Just like nobody asks how John McClane could survive all those falls, so nobody asks where Sachie got the money to run an empty restaurant in a foreign city; nobody knows what Sayoko really does for a living, even though her Rent-a-cat business obviously is not enough to support her. Nobody knows who their families are, what their surnames are, where did they come from, and where will they go. These are women who are not defined by their jobs, their families, their partners; none of this is important to what they truly are. And yet, you know they are full, three-dimensional characters. It’s that hanging scroll effect again: a simple sketch tells the whole story.

Run these movies through a Bechdel Test, and the results will be off the scale. Apart from “Toilet”, men appear as background or plot devices; there’s not a hint of romance: even what may seem like it in Rent-a-neko is swept away like the floating summer noodle before it gets a chance to develop. In these fantasy worlds, nothing, and no-one, stands in the way of a woman’s self-discovery. These are the most perfectly subtle feminist movies I’ve ever seen.

And then there’s the Obaa-chan. A character – or rather, a living trope – played by the enigmatic Masako Motai. The obaa-chan’s presence weighs heavily on what little of the plot there is, at once focusing and blurring the actions of everyone else around her. And although there is no actual connection between Masako’s characters in each movie, you could try to trace her progression of sorts throughout Ogigami’s oeuvre: starting out as a noisy and strict conformist in Yoshino’s Barber, she changes her ways and leaves Japan in search of new experiences in Kamome Diner; in the summer she sells shaved ice on Megane’s island, and, at the end of her life, is brought to Canada, to change the lives of her lost grand-children. In Rent-a-neko, she’s just a memory, a spirit in a shrine, but even in death (and I’m convinced that the dead grandmother in the movie is “played” by Masako Motai in absentia) she’s at least the second most important character in the story. Masako’s Obaa-chan is not the wise-but-sweet grandma of Miyazaki’s movies: rather, she, too, is strong, self-reliant, and with a blurry, unimportant past left behind. By the time we see her in Megane and Toilet, a lifetime of  independence gives her a Yoda-esque presence and authority. She is the fulfillment of the dream that all of Ogigami’s characters, more or less inadvertently, pursue. And, as the symbolic final scene of Rent-a-neko shows, she has raised the next generation of independent women well.

Soon after the success of Kamome Diner, together with her producer, Kumi Kobata, and a few other female movie makers, Naoko Ogigami established an independent production studio, Suurkiitos. I am now going slowly through their catalog, and from what I can tell, the movies created there continue the tradition of telling beautifully sketched, simple, subtle stories with strong female characters. “Suurkiitos” means “Thank you very much” in Finnish, and it is a fitting name for a company whose work inspires so much gratitude in the viewers.

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