Women on the Edge: Film Review

An inconsequential, insufferably mannerist sibling drama set in post-quake Fukushima, Japan.

Self-indulgent, dramatically lax and grating representation of three sisters reuniting in their deceased parents' ancestral home.


TOKYO --  Contriving austere, purist camera setups that Masahiro Kobayashi (Haru's Journey, The Rebirth) is often over-appreciated for aren't enough to exonerate him from the self-indulgent, dramatically lax and grating representation of three sisters reuniting in their deceased parents' ancestral home in Women on the Edge.

The fact that the director-writer-producer takes no notice of the suffering and loss of post-earthquake Fukushima where he sets his skeletal work is itself disturbing. In any case, the most patient viewer would be driven over the edge by the soporific rhythm and lack of anything meaningful happening besides petty domestic squabbling. The Locarno Golden Leopard winner may take refuge in his clique of high-brow cinephiles and festivals eager to program anything related to Fukushima. Otherwise, commercial interest will be miniscule.

The first half-hour-plus is confined to a few meters of tatami in the living room of a traditional house in rural Japan. The Onodera sisters take turns to descend on their late parents' disused home, which has survived the tsunami and quake since it was built on high ground. Eldest Takako (Makiko Watanabe) is a butoh dancer and second sister Nobuko (Yuko Nakamura) is a housewife-divorcee. Both ran away from home to New York and Tokyo, respectively, cutting off family ties for 15 years. Youngest Satomi (Miho Fujima) plays the martyr for staying behind, though she's far from angelic.

Like King Lear's daughters, the sisters accuse each other of fleecing their parents while scrabbling over any prospective inheritance, and unload their grudges and lifetime of disappointments on each other. There are shots of them walking past rubble in the streets, and Takako makes a passing complaint about pressures to commiserate with earthquake victims within New York's Japanese community. Other than that, any subtext on post-disaster trauma or even the slightest hint to what conditions or future the residents of Fukushima face is drowned in a tsunami of personal diatribe. The change of location from the house to seaside to backyard does nothing to relieve the dialogue's monotony, or offer turning points to reveal any character depth.

Cinematography is typical of Kobayashi's auteur style of long takes and rigid framing. The camera is glued to the floor for most of the indoor scene, except for a few aggressively large closeups of Takako when she is ranting. On the beach, the sisters are observed dully from a distant height. Variation comes in the dubious form of shaky handheld shots of Takako rolling on the grass.The setup might have functioned better on a minimalist stage given the small cast and limited locations. The cast employs a stiff, stilted body language and dialogue that is deliberately repetitive and reminiscent of baby babble, all of which befit an experimental play more than the screen (in fact, Kobayashi wrote the first draft for stage performance in 2006). Against such odds, Kobayashi regular Watanabe astounds with her ability to sustain a feverish emotional pitch for a full, continuous-take half hour.

Venue: Tokyo International Film Festival, Special Presentations.
Sales and production: Monkey Town Productions.
Cast: Makiko Watanabe, Yuko Nakamura, Miho Fujima.
Director-writer-producer: Masahiro Kobayashi.
Executive producers: Hirotaka Yamada, Yoshiyuki Akiyama.
General producer: Yoshinori Kano.
Director of photography: Koichi Kishikubo.
Editor: Naoki Kaneko.
No rating, 101 minutes.