Blood Ties

My Man (Watashi no otoko)

Lindsay Nelson, Center for Global Communication Strategies, The University of Tokyo [About | Email]

Volume 15, Issue 2 (Film review 2 in 2015). First published in ejcjs on 30 August 2015.

Director: Kumakiri Kazuyoshi
Actors: Asano Tadanobu, Nikaido Fumi
Release date: 2014
Run time: 129 minutes

At one point in Kumakiri Kazuyoshi’s My Man, the teenage Hana (Nikaido Fumi) stares out at the waves crashing on the Hokkaido coastline and smiles her mysterious smile. “The end of the world,” she giggles, scampering toward the waves. My Man does occasionally feel like a story set at the end of the world, or at least the very edge of it. Its characters, too, are dancing on a knife-edge—between sanity and madness, salvation and depravity, even life and death. This is not the Hakodate or Otaru scenery that tourists are familiar with—as cinematographer Kondō Ryūto films it, small-town Hokkaido is isolated, impoverished, and surrounded by a vast nothingness that permeates everything and everyone it touches.

Though it’s primarily the story of a disturbing relationship between a young girl and her adoptive father, My Man is also a movie about a very specific place. Hokkaido in winter is all greys and whites, snow drifts dotted with drab housing units and slush-filled streets. The only bright colour is red—a blanket in a love hotel under a woman’s naked body, sudden spatters of blood, Hana’s bright red scarf, a red umbrella in the film’s final scene. Everything else is shadowy and subdued.

The film begins in the aftermath of a quake and tsunami, where we find the young Hana swimming for her life toward a debris-filled shore after she has lost her entire family. Though not meant to be a depiction of the Tohoku disaster specifically, the scenes of Hana and others in refugee shelters shaking with frequent aftershocks seem ripped from 2011 news footage. A distant relative, Jungo, arrives at the shelter and claims Hana, saying simply that he “wants a family.” Cut to several years later, and Hana is a junior high school student who speaks oddly and always has a knowing grin on her face. Jungo spends a lot of time out at sea while Hana waits patiently at home—“that’s how men are,” she sighs.

It quickly becomes clear that Jungo and Hana have a sexual relationship. Their intimate scenes, filmed with a lingering attention to detail, are supremely difficult to watch. At one point blood rains down from the ceiling as they have sex, covering their bodies and the windows of their apartment. It’s a hint of what’s to come, as Hana and Jungo will both eventually resort to violence to protect their union.

More disturbing than the graphic sex scenes, though, is the very nature of Hana and Jungo’s relationship. They’re members of a cult of two, both deeply invested in a warped idea of family, fiercely protective of the tiny unit they have cobbled together out of tragedy (we learn that Jungo also has a violent and tragic past, though he tells the very young Hana only that he had a ‘worthless’ family and that they’re all dead). In Kumakiri’s Sketches of Kaitan City, the problem was a lack of connection, even among characters who had family and friends to rely on. In My Man, there’s a connection, but it’s a connection turned in on itself, clearly doing more harm than good.

Hana, played brilliantly by Nikaido in a performance that earned her multiple acting awards, up-ends all expectations and preconceptions about her character. She is clearly affected by the sudden loss of her entire family and by her twisted relationship with Jungo, but she also comes across as very sure about what she wants, and the lengths she will go to to protect it. Her transformation in the second half of the film from giggly schoolgirl to sophisticated, self-assured adult is mesmerising and utterly convincing. The initial instinct is to pity her, but her fierce drive and loyalty to Jungo, and her willingness to resort to violence to protect their relationship, are more terrifying than pitiful.

The film’s most incredible scene takes place on unsteady ice floes, with two characters poised at the edge of their isolated world, balancing on chunks of ice that are slowly drifting out to sea. Yoshio, a town elder, has learned about the nature of Hana and Jungo’s relationship and tries to confront her, but she runs out onto the ice floes to escape him, screaming that no one will separate her from Jungo (“Our blood is linked!”). Filmed against a backdrop of swirling snow and the noise of whales swimming nearby, the emotionally unhinged Hana’s rage at Yoshio is frightening to behold. Amazingly, the scene was shot on location with no photographic trickery—the actors wore dry suits underneath their costumes in case they fell through the ice and into the water.

Initially, the film’s second half seems divorced from its first—feeling that their union is threatened, Hana and Jungo flee to Tokyo, where Hana matures into a sexually confident but still enigmatic young adult. Jungo, meanwhile, descends into alcoholism. Looking closely, though, we can see that the main theme is still the same—the fragile and malleable nature of human connection and family. Jungo and Hana may have grown apart, but the film’s final scene indicates that their bond is not so easily severed.

In a Japan that is seeing a new wave of emotional and economic instability in the wake of the 2011 quake, tsunami, and nuclear disaster, it seems natural that traditional ideas of family and social structures would be up-ended. Panic over a declining birth rate is connected to an overall uneasiness at the ways in which young people are foregoing deeper human relationships for superficial ones. For Hana and Jungo, both of whom have lost their homes and families, a disturbing mix of paternal and sexual intimacy seems like a reasonable option. When everything could be washed away in an instant, taboos become meaningless. A connection this strong, harmful and destructive though it may be, could also be the only thing keeping Jungo and Hana from falling off the edge of the world.

About the Author

Lindsay Nelson received her PhD in Comparative Literature from the University of Southern California in 2012. Her dissertation, ‘Embracing the Demon: The Monstrous Child in Japanese Literature and Cinema, 1946-2009’, examined the figure of the monstrous child in Japanese novels, short stories, and horror films. Her work has appeared in Cinemascope Independent Film Journal, Discourse, and Midnight Eye. She is currently a project lecturer at the Centre for Global Communication Strategies at the University of Tokyo. Her research interests include contemporary Japanese horror films, Japanese science fiction, and the depiction of urban and domestic space in contemporary Japanese literature and film.

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