Hold Me Back 私をくいとめて Director: Akiko Ohku (2020) [New York Asian Film Festival 2021]

Hold Me Back   

私をくいとめて Watashi o Kuitomete

Release Date: December 18th, 2020

Duration: 135 mins.

Director: Akiko Ohku

Writer: Akiko Ohku (Script), RisWataya (Original Novel)

Starring: Non, Kento Hayashi, Asami Usada, Ai Hashimoto, Hairi Katagiri, Takuya Wakabayashi, Tomoya Nakamura,

Website IMDB

Director Akiko Ohku’s Hold Me Back won the Best Film prize at the 2020 edition of the Tokyo International Film Festival (the only award on offer that year). This was the second time that she won the award, voted for by audiences, having previously nabbed it in 2017 with Tremble All You Want. Both films were adapted from novels by Akutagawa Prize-winner Risa Wataya and both feature young women engaging in romantic comedies that go beyond love and laughs to moments of self-actualisation that help them grow as individuals. Hold Me Back is an especially enjoyable film thanks to a layered performance from lead actor Non who is able to portray an everyday person with a quirky charm but also depths of emotion that come out in an odd but endearing way.

It is often said that talking to one’s self is the first sign of madness but for some of us, that inner voice is the only shred of confidence that we have. Such is the case for Mitsuko (Non), a 31-year-old office lady who lives and works in Tokyo. She appears confident on the outside due to her beaming smiles but she is actually dealing with profound existential angst.

For example, when we first see Mitsuko, she is cheerfully living the “ohitorisama” lifestyle by taking solo trips to Kappabashi to try out making wax tempura at a food sample workshop, relaxing at onsens alone, and dining on yakiniku by herself. However, it isn’t easy flying solo because there’s stigma attached to being by one’s self in a society where everyone is together, be it as couples, families, colleagues etc. Her method of overcoming embarrassment is an imaginary friend she has named “A” (for Answer – voiced with a calm and reassuring tone by Tomoya Nakamura). “A” acts as a friend pushing Mitsuko to do the things she wants to do and offering a sympathetic voice when she backs down.

HOLD ME BACK STILL 11 Mitsuko at an Onsen
©2020 ”Hold Me Back” Film Partners

Through following the quotidian aspects of her days, we see how Mitsuko has created a comfortable lifestyle for herself due to her imaginary friend’s constant support. That support also takes the form of “A” being a counsellor who gives her advice on how to behave in the office and also taking time to be an agony uncle for relationships. Essentially, “A” gives Mitsuko the confidence to face the thorny issue of dealing with other people but he warns her that he is essentially a part of her and she is talking to herself, something that spills out in funny moments when she shouts out loud her inner arguments much to the surprise of those around her.

Conflict comes when Mitsuko is torn between wanting her peaceful single life with “A” to continue and having to admit that she has fallen in love with Tada-kun (Kento Hayashi), a shy-but-sweet salesman who visits her company and her apartment where she gives him home-cooked meals. He is two years younger than her and that small age gap alone is enough to give Mitsuko anxiety but her love is a long-held feeling that Mitsuko can no longer ignore, especially as Tada seems to be crushing on her. As “A” pushes her to pursue him, Mitsuko is confused by a new lack of courage that “A” insists she has to overcome. Maybe she is using “A” to hold herself back from living life…?

©2020 ”Hold Me Back” Film Partners

While a path forward in life like getting a boyfriend might seem obvious to neutral observers, we learn what holds Mitsuko back through her dialogue with “A” as they argue over her insecurities. Through snappy dialogue the film sketches out a portrait of a thoroughly modern woman whose lack of courage and fear of intimacy comes from frustrations over issues such as her lack of advancement, dealing with harassment, impostor syndrome, and sexual objectification. These are universal experiences that audiences are sure to identify with but viewers will recognise that she uses them as reasons to justify not getting involved with others or changing her life for fear of getting hurt. Seeing her torn by her loneliness and hiding away from pain really pulls at the heartstrings and raises this film above the expected romantic comedy angle. What relays the human impact of Mitsuko’s struggle is Non’s stunner of a performance that helps us connect with her character.

Non shows multiple layers that are peeled back as the story progresses. She goes beyond the charmingly cute exterior that we might expect (and which she delivers with aplomb) and drags out the worries Mitsuko feels, bringing life to Ohku’s artfully written and shot conversations with “A”, most of which are witty, some heart-breaking, and some, the delusional ones, zany. Bear in mind that Non is essentially arguing with herself, both in the text since “A” is a part of herself, and on the set since his responses are ADR, and Non’s committed performance is absolutely jaw-dropping in its charisma and believability. The bravura stuff comes when we see how Mitsuko is deeply wounded and Non escalates herself up into a rage quite naturally and then mellows with a resolution. As such, we are rooted with Mitsuko’s experience.

Akiko Ohku really works off the charm of Non by centring her worldview and filming it sympathetically. Handheld cameras close to her lead combined with close-ups and mid-shots capture Non in ways that allow her to be expressive. A beautifully designed apartment shows the sort of nest that she refuses to fly even as a boyfriend offers the possibility of positive change, and CG’d words and images offer an insight into her imagination which is hopeful. The use of lighting is one highlight as it dims and brightens depending upon her mood. Tension comes as we will Mitsuko to overcome her misgivings and break away from what is holding her back. At the end, when she took that chance, I cried tears of happiness for her because I felt her existential angst was still sharp but her bravery was sharper. Ultimately I was swept away by her character’s journey thanks to Non’s  wonderful performance.

Hold Me Back plays as part of the New York Asian Film Festival 2021.

2 thoughts on “Hold Me Back 私をくいとめて Director: Akiko Ohku (2020) [New York Asian Film Festival 2021]

    1. Loved it. I went in with an open mind and came out a major fan. The mirroring scenes of Mitsuko’s experiences in the plane was brilliant and that final shot of her was magnificent. Truly moved.

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