またの日の知華 「Mata no Hi no Chika」
Release Date: January 05th 2005
Duration: 114 mins.
Director: Kazuo Hara
Producer: Sachiko Kobayashi
Writer: Sachiko Kobayashi
Starring: Takami Yoshimoto (Chika Chapter 1), Minoru Tanaka, Makiko Watanabe (Chika Chapter 2), Seiichi Tanabe, Kumija Kim (Chika Chapter 3), Yoshikazu Kotani, Kaori Momoi (Chika Chapter 4), Isao Natsuyagi, Toshie Negishi,
Following on 11 years from their award-winning documentary A Dedicated Life (1994), husband-and-wife filmmaking team Kazuo Hara and Sachiko Kobayashi made The Many Faces of Chika, their first and only fiction feature. Although drawing from history, the mysterious nature of the central character makes it into an allegorical film about the male gaze, the subjection of women, and the destructive nature of passion, interlinking these ideas with the destruction of leftist movements. It has a dreamy air to it that stands in contrast to the usual dedication to realism that Hara and Kobayashi have consistently shown in their work and it makes the experience absorbing in its own way.
For this project Hara assumed directorial duties while Kobayashi penned the script as well as her acting as producer. This is in line with her first forays into cinema as she attended writing classes taught by politically active New Wave directors such as Kaneto Shindo and Nagisa Oshima in the late 60s and early 70s. Kobayashi’s screenplay for The Many Faces of Chika uses the cultural and political upheaval of that very time period as the background for a drama that has an experimental conceit: four actresses play the part of the eponymous Chika to portray the different ways she is perceived through the eyes of different men.
Split into four chapters with four different actresses in the lead role, we begin in Niigata in the 1960s with Takami Yoshimoto portraying a wholesome, fresh-faced and vibrant Chika who marries a childhood sweetheart and moves to Tokyo where she works as a high school gym teacher and the couple have a baby boy. The second chapter follows Makiko Watanabe’s more sensual yet prim variation as she is caught in a sexless existence and trying to resist the obsessive attention of a fellow gym teacher in 1969 whose presence places her marriage at stake. The film then drifts through Chika’s gradual decline to a fallen woman in the 1970s with Kumija Kim playing a more careworn motherly woman in Tokyo/Toyokawa as she reunites with a former school pupil who is now a student protestor seeking an escape from the turmoil and, finally, Kaori Momoi as a more hopeless woman on Tobishima, an island in the south, as she falls in with an ex-con and acts as little more than a floozy.
The tone of the film is dreamy as we drift through these time periods in the company of actresses who play the role with distinctly different auras which are in line with how the male characters perceive her. Such massive changes in approach make her hard to read as a character and we may always wonder about her true feelings but we are never really given any definitive answers. Muddying waters is the sense that Chika is driven to act the way she does because she is obsessed with the idea that she has inherited her mother’s loose morals. It is a character detail that emerges in a couple of chapters as a slur from the men in her life and it serves to explain her decline but we have to remember that the woman we see on screen is drawn from the perception of the male characters and so a more distressing fact emerges: Chika is constantly subject to the male gaze and subjected to the male character’s beliefs and action.
While the film allows Chika to have her own agency and sexual drive, her actions invoke some form of punishment whether it is social approbation or the ire of resentful lovers. This exposes the lie that society tells women which is that they are free to act as they please when the reality is that they have to navigate the demands of patriarchy. Throughout the film, Chika is subject to how men perceive her and is also, at times, a victim of their violence. Ultimately she (and we in the audience) lose her true self to their perceptions and emotional/physical violence. This leads to an utterly tragic and heart-breaking epilogue where her son, who has never truly known her, can no longer get a true glimpse of his mother’s face as he has her character mediated through the memories and experiences of other men and the few all-too-short moments he spent with her when growing up but unable to understand her. Despite the deliberately disturbing ending that shakes our perceptions of how we view others, it is a beautiful film to watch and gentle in its deadliness.
The rhythm is considered, the visuals with their strong lighting and setting bring an almost palpable atmosphere. Throughout the film, the seasons and their attendant environmental details play a heavy role that are symbolic of phases in Chika’s life. The opening chapter’s spring freshness and sakura matches the Chika’s early hopes before ceding to a hot and heavy summer ripe with barely repressed eroticism and sex before sliding towards autumn and a winter chill as Chika’s story comes to a close and the characters view her as an older woman. It also serves to add to the atmosphere and we get a couple of deep cuts of traditional Japanese culture, especially with one spectacular sequence that happens in Toyokawa Prefecture where the thrilling sight and sound of giant fireworks, Tezutsu Hanabi, light up the screen.
Alongside rich cultural details there is the effective use of archive footage that serves to mark momentous moments in the political landscape that also serve to both symbolise and act as a catalyst for changes in the characters – as Chika’s marriage implodes, we see footage of the United Red Army’s destruction while the naïve student that Chika reunites with in chapter three finds himself horrified by a terrorist attack that appears to be the East Asia Anti-Japan Armed Front’s bombing of the Mitsubishi Heavy Industries building in 1974.
Overall, Kobayashi delivers an effective story where I found Chika’s character arc poignantly handled and the social details acting as an effective backdrop. Coupled with Hara’s strong visual sense, the uniformly brilliant performances of the cast and evocative details created by the crew, I reckon audiences will find themselves transported back in time with this film, a tragic tale where we never get to see the true face of Chika but understand how perceptions of people and places shift depending upon who is mediating how we see them.
The Many Faces of Chika plays as part of a season of films made by Kazuo Hara and Sachiko Kobayashi that is available to stream in North America until July 02nd.