Release Date: N/A
Duration: 80 mins.
Director: Eriko Izumi
Writer: Eriko Izumi (Script),
Starring: Nanaho Otsuka, Jeremy Wang, Nanami Hidaka, Urara Matsubayahi, Saki Kato,
Young female directors are gaining ground in the male-dominated Japanese film industry and nowhere is this more in evidence than in film schools across the nation where women make up an increasing number of students, a great example being Aya Miyazaki and her university work Good-Bye (2020) which has now entered cinemas on a theatrical run.
Eriko Izumi is one of the latest names to emerge with her debut feature Young Birds. It is an original work produced by herself and 12 students, some from China and Thailand, at Digital Hollywood University over a year and a half. While rough around the edges, it presents an easy-to-understand coming-of-age drama examining the insecurities felt by a young woman trying to find her path in life.
The story takes place in contemporary Tokyo and follows Mina Saito (Nanaho Otsuka), a recent fashion school graduate who has started working as a clothing designer. Despite her passion for fashion, she feels anxiety due to a number of causes: a competitive and unstable choice of career, an overly-critical mother who would rather a more staid profession for her daughter, a more successful older sister with whom Mina lives, and bad memories of losing at a design competition to her talented classmate Saori (Urara Matsubayashi of Kamata Prelude). While Mina has friends offering support, all of her anxieties over her chosen path in life become exacerbated when she is placed in a competition with Saori again.
Change comes, however, when Mina meets a Chinese man named Tou (Jeremy Wang). If Mina’s anxieties form the rush of emotions that push the film, they are given some direction in the way this stranger helps her channel them.
Tou is a slightly older guy who is a translator by trade and he has a girlfriend back home. He takes an altruistic interest in Mina and his experience in life allows him to offer advice which gives Mina a chance to fully grasp what she wants from life. It is a believable relationship between two creatives based on the difference in outlook as explored in numerous café conversations. Their differences offer an interesting distance between characters rather than the close proximity of romance. This distance allows Mina the space to reflect on her life and greater agency to move forward and learn, like a Young Bird, to fly from the nest and live for herself.
While Izumi’s script is a little on the nose when it comes to drawing out Mina’s inner-turmoil and the conflict with her family, the basic building blocks of solid writing are there. Each of the characters has some trait that Mina can learn from when it comes to living – best friend Haruka (Nanami Hidaka) has confidence, Saori has professionalism and is living apart from her parents – and Mina’s character arc makes sense. The film also takes some time to offer detail to the backstory of Mina’s mother and sister so it doesn’t reduce them to caricatures. While they could come off as merely the personifications of Mina’s doubts, they feel like people who offer criticism of Mina simply because that is how they have learned to get along in life.
As one might expect from a student film, this is rough around the edges with occasional missteps – a camera left running in an empty room as the action takes place elsewhere, the odd bad angle, a microphone picking up some ambient noise, and an abrupt cut from a scene. However, Izumi lines up some interesting visual metaphors and clues to character growth. At points Mina hides out and draws her fashion designs in a closed-down school, a metaphor for the dreams she has nurtured since her teenage years. There are mirroring scenes that show her development, such as the camera panning around her room at the beginning and end and end of the film, the last scene showing the addition of Chinese-language study books amidst the fashion design implements. This suggests she might have worked up the bravery to embark upon a journey that will take her far from home.
Nanaho Otsuka, last seen in a more chirpy form in Jeux de Plage (2019), is in nearly every scene of this film and perfectly essays a young woman struggling with her confidence and this is where the film excels. Otsuka is effective at drawing audience sympathy in moments when she has to navigate various encounters with colleagues and rivals. We get a wide register of downcast looks, anxious stares, and the frowns that ripple across her face as she struggles with frustration. Just as affecting are the moments when she shows intense concentration when designing her fashion items and a grin that shows some happiness when she feels more comfortable in herself and can synchronise herself with her ideal career.
Young Birds is not a perfect film but it shows signs of talent in Izumi and her cast. More polish is needed in terms of technicals but it is clear in what it wants to be and it will chime with many viewers who will recognise the difficulties in pursuing a career or simply getting along with others, and it offers a satisfying ending that shows how growth is possible.