Release Date: 2022
Duration: 38 mins.
Director: Sae Suzuki
Writer: Sae Suzuki (Screenplay),
Starring: Manami Usamaru, Akihiro Yamamoto, Sayaka Nakakochi, Natsuki Murata,
In the last few years Japan has been experiencing its own #MeToo moments as stories of power/sexual harassment have hit scandal mags and SNS. Such stories have taken down a variety of people from cinema chain managers to film directors and producers. Despite this, problems of harassment persist in many areas of life. Fortunately, filmmakers are using their platform so titles like Strangers can shine a light on these problems.
Strangers is a melancholic but hopeful short film from Sae Suzuki that circles around the idea of individuals experiencing sexual harassment, suffering in silence, and the release from trauma found in shedding an identity and sharing a problem.
Manami Usamaru of Sisterhood (2019) fame plays Yukie, a dental nurse from a rural town. Quiet and unassuming, it is only when we listen in on Yukie’s conversations with a co-worker that we hear her dreams, a vague desire to live by the sea, a vague desire for freedom. This desire becomes reality when the power harassment of her boss turns into sexual harassment and Yukie makes the impulsive decision to flee to Tokyo with the dental clinic’s cash. There, she can be free to do as she pleases and so she changes her appearance and personality and meets up with a guy named Minato on a dating app who is hiding his own inner pain. Together as strangers, they offer each other hope for a new life even as they wrestle with painful ideas from their old lives.
For most of its runtime, Strangers does an excellent job of keeping everything subtextual through the performer’s actions and their surroundings until some on-the-nose dialogue brings it all out.
Suzuki concisely captures contrasting feelings of entrapment and freedom through location, costuming, and shot composition and how these feelings allow the characters to navigate their crises.
The frustrating feeling of Yukie’s life is felt from the get-go with establishing shots of her hometown, a flat landscape full of low-rise buildings framed by mountains in the distance. The sight is immediately claustrophobic. The close-ups of characters in the cluttered confines of the dental clinic further that feeling of being hemmed in, especially with the relentlessly overbearing presence of Yukie’s employer who hovers around and literally towers over her in one shot. Meanwhile Yukie’s dress and demure behaviour shows how she subsumes herself into her surroundings while also serving to make her something of an everywoman, an archetype of someone who silently endures sexual harassment in a patriarchal society.
In contrast, Tokyo and Yukie’s behaviour in the city both feel freer, more liberated. Wide shots show spacious interiors of hotels and clubs and new-build areas of the city and these serve as a stage for her to wander around while wearing a dazzling red dress and red lipstick. As she dances and runs amidst the skyscrapers and the wide airy boulevards near Tokyo Bay with Minato we get to see how free she is in her desired location. This is a vast place teeming with strangers where she can laugh, lose herself, and change her life to become someone new. However, old habits (and gender conformity) die hard as she finds herself being politer to Minato than she need be and struggles to reconcile her desires with her old life. To show this struggle, Suzuki always adds a moment of contrasting mood to the airy lightness and Usamaru is eloquent in body language and dialogue to shift gears and relay the emotions of the scene perfectly to keep us thinking about the changes in the main character.
Scenes of consumerism have the spark of joy and even romance as the film convincingly touches upon that possibility provided by Minato but Suzuki sticks to her heavier subject matter by ensuring they are shadowed by moments of what feels like emptiness and contemplation as Yukie stands and consider her positions in life, a brooding look crossing her face as she is alone in a location.
For viewers not paying attention, Suzuki floats ideas of being trapped by gender identity with a blunt line of dialogue: “I wish I could have switched my gender…” Yukie’s admission of this opens the film up to a more rigorous discussion of gender discrimination and audiences are smoothly guided into seeing how people oftentimes bear the burden of harassment in silence to more open dialogue to consider how society treats men and women differently.
Even for Minato, a man, we come to learn that he is trapped, not just because of pain from a past relationship but also toxic views on sexual relations that he is trying to process that have put him in such a position. Akihiro Yamamoto is charismatic enough to be a potential romantic partner but best works as a sounding board for Yukie’s explorations of her situation. Although his character arc is solid, its resolution feel rushed. However, his presence broadens the conversation on how men are constrained by expectations and discrimination and that is to be welcomed.
What cannot be doubted, however, is that the film really does nail the way characters are able to shed their inhibitions with strangers. The two lead characters offer that non-judgemental presence that allows them to stand back and consider how to live life. Important aspects of personalities, so often politicised and open to criticism from others, are sometimes easier to navigate openly with strangers who we can be honest with without the fear of shame.
The film leaves the characters in an uncertain position but you feel, from Sae Suzuki’s skilful use of visual elements to Manami Usamaru’s nuanced acting, that character growth has taken place and by speaking these issues out in the open they can breathe again and move forward positively as the final images and sounds eloquently and beautifully show.
You can read an interview with director Sae Suzuki here.