“We contain multitudes.” A cliche saying that while true, has more meaning than just referring to our numerous ambitions and skills; no person is made of a singular identity either. Rather, we contain our real selves and our idealized selves, which are marked by expectations and pressures, and these entities are always battling for the sovereign reign of our spirits. What unattainable goals do we constantly chase in the duplicitous hope of true confidence? What insecurities and past traumas secure the strings that hold us back? And finally, what does it take to cut ourselves free?
Takeshi Kushida’s feature-length debut, Woman of the Photographs, is a film that through its wonderful simplicity, yet stirring evocation, probes the relationship between interaction, validation, and confidence. The story follows Kai (Hideki Nagai), a photographer and retoucher who lives contently in his own solitude — an indistinct man, blending into his world and hardly ever uttering a word. One day, he encounters Kyoko (Hsuki Otaki), a beautiful young social media influencer whose recent injury has left a gaping scar across her chest, and as the two grow closer professionally and personally, the content of their minds and hearts unravel.
At times a muted drama, and at others, a thunderous ballet, Woman of the Photographs drips with quiet, serene romanticism. The linear compositions and calm, steady rhythm carry ease over the film’s surface, even in its most riling moments. It tackles, with both blatant honesty and caring restraint, the temptation of quantitative measures of worth and the habitual plague of living vicariously through constructed identities of our own making. Manufactured on its own intimacy, every choice in the filmmaking manifests in the likeness of Kai and Kyoko — bringing light to their individual hesitations, reliefs, afflictions, and desires, as well as where and when those begin to intersect.
Given the understated nature of the film’s design, the performances of Nagai and Otaki are its central accelerant. Nagai is indisputably impressive. Not uttering a single word until the film’s final scene, his performance is built on silent, subtle nuances in posture and minute twinges of expression that emphatically emote everything we need to know about Kai. Without any verbal aid, Nagai makes pain, confusion, concern, relief, annoyance, wonder, tranquility, and contentment undoubtable. Otaki serves as more than ample support as she toggles between a placid sense of poise and a tumultuous, festering doubt that’s tragically apparent as it consumes her from the inside — even when her face remains unfazed. There’s harmonious, cyclical energy that charges through the moments in which Nagai and Otaki interact. Both actors’ performances course seamlessly in and out of flow with one another, showcasing palpable chemistry that roots Kai and Kyoko into the film’s concrete structure, and even ties the somewhat fragile, though persistent strings that affix them to each other.
However, what makes this film the most unique is its sound design. Woman of the Photographs contains a sonic symphony that is equally deafening and disarming. Every single sound is amplified, existing on the exact same plane. Voices are just as loud as footsteps, computer clicks, gentle caresses of skin on skin, and the buzzing of bugs in the world outside of closed doors. Nothing is hidden by means of existing out of earshot. Just as the frequent use of mirrors and reflections don’t allow the characters to hide from themselves, the sound design is unforgiving in its prohibition of ambiguity, being so detailed that it’s tactile. This amplification takes moments that could only be felt between two people and audibly magnifies them as a vehicle to share the intimacy with the audience, and it’s extremely effective.
“Who are you really? Who? Who? Who? Who? Who?”
Woman of the Photographs details the exchange between the inherent and the fabricated, the resistant and the receptive, and the real and the ideal. It’s fearless in showing how swiftly insecurity can take hold, and how strong its grip can be, then proposes a sublime, idiosyncratic narrative that ultimately loosens its fist. Dealing with intimacy and the uncanny, it uses society’s present relationship with photography to explore self-image and the confines that bind how we define it. But more than anything, Woman of the Photographs is a film about perception: how we view ourselves, how those ideas can keep us caged within our longing hearts, and how our own distorted reflections seem to morph into an enlightened reality when the eyes of another are used as the mirror.