Release Date: June 25th, 2021
Duration: 92 mins.
Director: Satoko Yokohama
Writer: Satoko Yokohama (Script), Osamu Koshigaya (Original Novel)
Starring: Ren Komai, Etsushi Toyokawa, Mei Kurokawa, Yoko Nishikawa, Mayuu Yokota, Ayumu Nakajima, Daimaou Kosaka, Shohei Uno,
Winner of the Grand Prix and Audience Award at the Osaka Asian Film Festival 2021, Ito is the first solo feature film from director Satoko Yokohama since her 2015 drama The Actor. Her cinematic return, following a stint in TV, is an adaptation of the first of Osamu Koshigaya’s series of three youth novels that were serialised and published between 2011 to 2016. His novels find their setting in Aomori Prefecture, the birthplace of Yokohama and also of the film’s lead actress Ren Komai.
There must have been an attraction to working on a project that is so close to home and it feels as if their intimate knowledge of Aomori’s way of life helps make more unique and meaningful its heart-warming comedy drama about a teenage girl who finds her voice through maid cafes and shamisen.
The teen at the heart of the film is a high schooler named Ito Soma (Ren Komai), a gangly girl who hails from Itayanagi, a small town outside Hirosaki city. She has a timid nature and a thick Tsugaru accent which makes her sound a bit like a hick. However, far from being a hayseed, Ito is very knowledgeable about her local culture and dialect and she can also play the shamisen, a three-stringed instrument that is particularly popular in Aomori. This skill is something she picked up from her grandmother (Yoko Nishikawa) and a massive part of the few memories she holds of her late mother, a talented shamisen player in her own right. Alas, Ito refuses to practice and stays silent due to her embarrassment over her country roots and also her melancholy over never having known her mother. However, it is through fully embracing these factors that Ito can eventually unlock her ability to express herself.
What puts the girl on the path of self-acceptance and self-expression is an unlikely job at a maid café in Hirosaki City. This boilerplate set-up is where the film gets most of its laughs as a fish out of water comedy ensues as our shy beanpole of a protagonist must put herself on display in a weird setting and try to act cute only to mess up in some fashion. For those who have been to maid cafes, treacly-sweet phrases like “Moe-moe, kyuun!” will be familiar but, when given that awkward rendition by Ito, they become amusing. Yes, the setting is a little rote – think nerdy guys and spunky girls – but the scenes are well done as the whole cast hits the appropriate comic notes and there is enough fizz in their easy interplay to make it fun. Characters such as an older maid named Sachiko (Mei Kurokawa) always feel distinctive and have enough backstory and realism to make their impact on Ito’s character growth have more weight.
Ultimately, what wins out in the film is the sense that Ito is her own fully formed character rather than just a nerdy girl or a wallflower who needs others to give her a personality. This is underlined when she refuses to meekly submit to well-meaning but ill-thought-out protection from male café customers charmed by her goofiness and also from her caring father, a linguist named Koichi (Etsushi Toyokawa) who specialises in the Tsugaru dialect. Indeed, Ito is constantly searching for answers on her own while pushing herself to communicate with others and it is through these interactions that she slowly comes to the realisation that her ability to communicate is something intrinsically linked to her culture and background and this is where the shamisen comes into play as she learns to express her true self through it.
The Japanese title “Itomichi” 糸道（いとみち）is metaphorical as well as literal on different levels. The two kanji symbolise a thread/string and road. The word itomichi is a reference to the groove which is formed in the nail of a Shamisen player from playing the strings. This is a physical thing shared between Ito, her mother and grandmother but it can also stand in as a metaphor for the impact that culture and history has on a person’s character and soul. The kanji of thread and road also suggest the ties between three generations of women and inform the main character’s journey as she rediscovers the parts of herself that she does not know so well, the factors which leads to the self-actualisation of her personality. In short, the film and its performers give a convincing story of a young woman learning to communicate for herself through her culture whilst also reconnecting with family roots.
In the central role is Ren Komai who skilfully delivers a performance that ably combines both comedy and drama. Her lanky physicality lends itself to prat-falls and the simple visual gags from being a physically awkward maid. She also has plenty of moments when she shows the interiority of her character and is able to come across as reticent. More compellingly, she is full of spirit and given to moments of defiance amidst her uncertainty. All of this means she comes off as real while still being quirky, and this mix of factors applies to the rest of the cast. As a non-Aomori person, the dialogue flies over my head but the uniqueness of the Tsugaru regional accent was ably imparted by the subtitles that captured a country bumpkin feel.
As previously mentioned, director Yokohama is a native of this land and so she brings an insider’s eye to capture the spirit of the place. The filming locations are all pleasant to view and deliver a slice of real Japan – small cities, villages, mist-wreathed mountainsides and country roads fringed by persimmon trees that give an authentic vibe of country living. There are also little lessons inserted to tell us more about Aomori as seen in shamisen practice and trips to a museum dedicated to World War II air raids which show objects and pictures from survivors in freeze frame. The best moment is the sequence where Ito’s shamisen performance is given full rein at the film’s climax as it allows us to enjoy Ren Komai’s sterling four-minute musical fireworks display which has occasional shots of her face and those in the audience in close up to show how profoundly moved people are, as well as occasional shots to the finger-work to show her skill as it is finally unleashed.
At this point, I was already profoundly moved myself but the film has one final image it ends on where Ito finally cries out with all her soul and she gets a reply of sorts. It brought me to tears as it reminded me that one’s culture and background are an intrinsic part of ourselves and help us connect with others so long as we acknowledge and embrace how they shaped us and use them wisely.