Among Four of Us
4人のあいだで 「4-Ri no Aida de」
Release Date: April 23rd, 2021
Duration: 40 mins.
Director: Mayu Nakamura
Writer: Mayu Nakamura (Screenplay)
Starring: Fusako Urabe, Nahana, Kota Kusano,
The Covid-19 pandemic has seen a number of high concept movies using the reality of lockdown situations to try new spins on old stories with social media platforms playing key roles. At the outset we had Zoom seances (The Host), actors in isolation making a horror film via videos recorded separately and edited together (One Cut of the Dead Mission: Remote), and, later in the pandemic, actor’s on the same set voicing the SNS comments their characters write as they experience a tentative romance mediated by the internet (Here and There).
Most of these films will be curios of an age where many of our interactions were confined online due to lockdowns but Mayu Nakamura’s 20-minute short Among Four of Us feels both specific to our moment and also timeless as strong writing and performances create a profoundly sad examination of the human condition.
The central conceit of the film is a socially distanced late-night conversation that takes place between three friends, Koji (Kota Kusano), Fusae (Fusako Urabe), and Nanae (Nahana). 20 years previously, they were in the same drama club in college. Since then they have gone their separate ways with Fusae and Nanae having given up and settled down to domesticity while only Koji is still acting. Haunted by lockdown loneliness and an incident with a fourth member of their theatre troupe, Koji attempts to resurrect the friendly and fun nature of their former relationship with beers and a laidback talk in a park.
Here is where the conceit gets interesting.
The opening minutes of their conversation has each character sat on a park bench with just beers and plastic bags for props. It initially seems like this might take a standard shot-reverse-shot format as each character is positioned to look like they are facing each other, each getting a separate shot when they talk. It is only when we hear a voice come through a speaker that we realise that it’s a group chat over the internet via an SNS like Line. They are, in fact, alone as they talk. Now that factor of separating characters by shot and the way they are framed makes them seem lonelier and this is a feeling carried through in the film.
What they talk about initially are the inconveniences and troubles imposed upon them by Covid-19, new realities that root the film in our specific moment in time. What is mentioned will ring true for many viewers: the irritation of being stuck at home, the anxiety of jobs drying up, a sense of isolation and angst over an uncertain future etc. Naturally, these middle-aged characters slip into nostalgia and lament the gap between their past ambitions and their present realities and this is where the presence of that aforementioned fourth person, a woman named Sayoko, looms heavily over the four.
A mercurial figure, Sayoko is cast alternately as playfully sexually provocative person or a destructive siren-like figure depending upon a character’s history with her. There’s a sense of “neko wo kaburu” (猫をかぶる) from all of the tall tales the three relate but as the conversation goes on an intensity builds and different layers of ressentiment are shown towards Sayoko and we get the feeling that her influence infected and derailed their lives in a way similar to Covid-19.
What was initially a light-hearted catch-up turns into a disturbing series of confessions that reveal profound emotional damage characters dealt to themselves and other based on their relationship with Sayoko. The dialogue is rich with subjective details and with each person’s recollection as they detail how their own behaviour was driven by jealousy, desire, and embarrassment. It is hard not to be sucked into their stories with a lurid interest. While we understand why they perceived her in such negative ways, the act of airing out their feelings and being challenged by others in the conversation presents a new reality of the woman and a bitter tragedy lies at the conclusion of the film.
It is only through their enforced distance due to the pandemic and the distance of time that they start to communicate and see Sayoko more clearly, a state of understanding hard to achieve when they were close together. Their pent up emotions, locked down inside themselves for so many years, are allowed out and a sense of understanding and catharsis is felt, something they signal to each other with their comment about the beauty of the moon.
The film’s set-up deceptively slight: a conversation. However, convincingly real dialogue that builds in detail and colour from each of the characters provides depth. Using Covid-19 as both a parallel to the trauma in the character’s lives and a catalyst for reaching a state of catharsis is cleverly done. Each character offers a different perspectives on a person to create an ever-evolving and engaging complexity to the story.
Despite never being in the same shot together, the direction and editing makes everyone feel connected. The performers interact like real friends while their facial expressions, often captured in close-ups, convey a sense of decades of emotions. Fusako Urabe really excels as someone made profoundly bitter sounding and full of despair and as we watch her relate her story, a sense of dread and pity are felt.
While it begins with a state of emergency in response to the pandemic, Nakamura’s script contains universal themes of loneliness, distance, and memory. The pandemic is a prompt for an exploration of these themes and they are revealed to have infected the lives of the characters in a more profound way than the Covid-19 pandemic has. Viewers will be able to relate to the means of communication and the themes brought up in any age and so the drama has the power to absorb audiences.