We begin in transit.
Hanako (Mugi Kadowaki) is in a taxi on the way to a family reunion. She arrives at a lofty hotel and informs her family that her fiancee has broken off their engagement, much to their dismay. Quickly, people begin to fix her life for her and before the dinner has ended, she is already arranged for another meeting. As she poses for a portrait in front of the camera, her family talks about a future she hasn’t agreed to.
Miki (Kiko Mizuhara) has to fight for a future to exist. Born in a smaller town, her attempt to forge her life in Tokyo is cut short by her father’s unemployment. Forced to quit school and to instead work as a hostess, she forms a relationship with a former classmate, Koichiro Aoki (Kengo Kora) — who later is revealed to be Hanako’s fiancee.
Adapted from the novel Anoko wa Kizoku by Mariko Yamauchi, the story and the city unravels before us through the eyes of these two women who operate in different spaces.
Reimagining women in society
Ideologies are passed down from generation to generation, and these are as inseparable from us as our family names. High society adheres to these social contracts by limiting their interactions with those of different classes. The patriarchy offers security to the compliant and this is reflected in the cultural action of the ensemble – who create the cultural background through their conversations.
Discussions at the beginning of the Aristocrats seemed to revolve around finding a lover. While I was initially averse to this, to the point where I questioned whether the film would pass the Bechdel test, it slowly made sense why these conversations kept happening: to participate in the world outside of our gendered roles seemed impossible – even to the affluent.
A scene in the third chapter of the film reimagines these interactions. Itsuko’s invitation for a coffee and a conversation quickly becomes an intervention. We’ve seen images of women in previous films fight for not only their own space but also the space in the lives of the men they love. As a Filipino, telenovelas have taught me that the meeting of mistresses and wives ended with either broken glass or a few scratched up faces. But in Aristocrats, the chance encounter expands into a civil understanding of how women, at the fringes, are forced to deal with the aftermaths of their roles and the patriarchy.
Differences in the relationships with culture and traditions across classes reveal themselves so simply after the gift of a festival dolls ticket: with Miki having no ties to the festival, while Hanako and her violinist friend Itsuko (Rio Yamashita) have multiple dolls dedicated to them.
Both in the film’s direction and writing, Sode Yukiko provides an alternative to these deeply-rooted cultural problems by allowing the women to stick together and support each other, make decisions for and with one another. The act of emancipation in the film is catalysed not by a brutal argument, but by an honest one; an argument that communicates pain and loneliness, full of silence and solidarity.
Filmmaker Yukiko Sode
Moving beyond spaces
The film depicts not only Hanako and Miki at the cusp of adulthood, but Tokyo as well. Our first character has always been the city. The images and sounds of Tokyo as an expansive and unexplored urban jungle captured through the rich cinematography (Sasaki Yasuyuki) and soundscapes (Kondo Takao and Watanabe Takuma) reveal the inner loneliness of the lower class and the inner chaos behind the facade of the upper class; the space always separating one class from the other.
Hanako and Miki are both in search of agency but are oppressed in diametrically opposed ways. Generational ideas of success and womanhood rooted in patriarchy are challenged by younger generations, who witness these loopholes and poke at these throughout, hoping it rips it apart.
So much of the film is about how spaces confine us to our societal function. “Tokyo’s compartmentalised” says Itsuko. “You only meet people from your class.” Koichiro only visits spaces that were previously visited by his family, revealing in this pattern his adherence to tradition. Hanako had been largely confined to her home or to the same social circles. Miki is unable to see her friend because she drops out of the university. Participation in the world is both mediated and dictated by these spaces.
Women see alternatives for escaping these oppressive structures by establishing their own spaces – leaving once male-dominated space and forging their own, independent from these ideals. Though this is incomplete, as we later see in the film, the film liberates its female protagonists, while Koichiro is trapped to fulfil his patriarchal duty.
As Miki invites Hanako in her space and narrates segments of her past, she begins to shift her gaze outside of her own life. Hanako begins her journey by wandering around Tokyo on her feet, as opposed to the taxi that always seems to take her from destination to destination. In the pathlessness, they both find their way out of their former lives, finally in control of what lies ahead.
By Young Film Critic Jason Tan Liwag
Jason Tan Liwag
Young Film Critic from The Philippines at IFFR 2021