New York Asian Film Fest “Director-in-Focus” Daihachi Yoshida was a revelation. Since 2007 Yoshida has carved a niche of Female-centric dark comedy/drama’s that are masked in seeming light-heartedness and banality. Yoshida explores subjects of emotional, geographic and economic isolation and depicts the struggle of individuals to break patterns. His subjects fit right into the conversation of complex female characterizations that is shared amongst the films of NYAFF and occupies somewhat of a tonal middleground to the fest as a whole. NYAFF presented Funuke, Show Some Love You Losers!, Pale Moon and Permanent Nobara as a mini retrospective. In all three features Yoshida is surprisingly subdued in his expressions of severe behaviors, and from oldest to newest, gradually strips down his cinema to something with great clarity.
Funuke, Show Some Love You Losers is Yoshida’s auspicious debut, about the step-siblings of the Wago family. Sumika, the eldest sister, returns to her rural home after her parents are run over by a truck while trying to save a cat, as witnessed by her younger manga-drawing sister Kyomi. The visualization of this event is a memorable one. Sumika has been struggling to start acting career in big Tokyo, which has more to do with her return home than the funeral. The surly elder step-brother Shinji (Masatoshi Nagase of The Hidden Blade) runs the household with his scene-stealing, irrepressible, ray-of-sunshine wife (Hiromi Nagasaku) who receives my vote for best supporting performance of the fest (in combination with her role in Solomon’s Perjury). Sumika quickly reveals the depths of her delusion, desperation, narcissism and sociopathy as she schemes to squeeze money and attention out of her poor family. Her goal is to get back to Tokyo despite her fantastic lack of acting talent, meanwhile psychologically abusing Kyomi, whom she blames for all her own failures. Though Sumika is only one part of this twisted ensemble, she is the epicenter to the unhealthy emotional patterns represented in each person. The sick genius of the film is how Yoshida creates a kind of symbiosis between the antagonistic sisters.
Sumika’s ruthless attempts to support her delusional non-career share a dialogue with Rika in Yoshida’s most recent film Pale Moon. Rika is a mannered and deferent bank clerk that handles the investments of mostly elderly/retired clients while living in a benign passionless marriage. To support an affair with a younger man (the grandson of her wealthiest client) and create a persona of wealth, Rika hatches an embezzling scheme that gradually spirals toward a point of no return without feeling a need to hurry its pace. This overarching story connects with other films in the fest that explore broad economic disparity as a subtext (even Tokyo Tribe chimes in), while delving into more existential material. Though Rika’s demeanor reads less like demented sociopathy, and more like a slippery slope “moral decline”, she is equally the deceiver that Sumika is. The difference is that Rika is fully cognizant of her choices, whereas Sumika is somewhere on the emotionally disturbed spectrum that deludes even herself.
The ensemble gem Permanent Nobara augments the “return home” premise of Funuke with a similar interplay of flashbacks, environmental stagnancy and savage comedy to weave a story of psychological/behavioral patterns. Naoko (Miho Kanno) comes back to her isolated fishing town with her young daughter Momo, post-messy divorce. She reconnects with her two childhood friends who are themselves navigating histories of abusive relationships and financial hardship. “Permanent Nobara”, is the namesake of the salon run by Naoko’s mother, which offers one tightly curled hairstyle but varied and colorful conversation. It is where many of these character steams converge. The older generation gathers there to discuss and dish with a refreshing crassness. As she settles, Naoko strikes up a secret romance with her former high school science teacher Kashima (Yosuke Eguchi), which brings a spark of life to her in this uncertain period of adjustment. The pained emotional nuances and textures of Permanent Nobara are carried on a light breeze with flashbacks that set roots beautifully for dramatic and comedic payoffs throughout. Among the three Yoshida selections, Nobara possesses the most subtleties and ambiguities which renders it memorably indefinable.