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Year: 2011
Country: Japan
Language: Japanese
Director: Sakaguchi Katsumi
Screenplay: Sakaguchi Katsumi
Cinematography: no names available
Cast: Hirano Mariko, Kobayashi Aimi, Komagata Miyuki
Runtime: 96 min
Trailer: on YouTube (short trailer only)
Film’s official website: Nemuri Yusurika (in Japanese only)

Seen at the ICA as part of The Japan Foundation’s Touring Film Programme Whose Film Is It Anyway? Contemporary Japanese Auteurs”.

Within a minute of its opening, Nemuri Yusurika throws the viewer a rape scene, which, to make it worse, involves an underage girl. Although it does not use full-on graphics, it is still more explicit than many films, starkly making clear that Nemuri Yusurika will not look away: it provocatively shows the unspeakable and the unspoken right from the very start. What this means, of course, is that Nemuri Yusurika falls among those cinematic productions that are agonisingly difficult to watch (줄탁동시/Jooltak Dongshi is another example that comes to mind) and not possible to endure for everyone. Yet, Nemuri Yusurika is a film that needs to be made and should be watched.

The provocation is, as Nemuri Yusurika’s director said himself, on purpose, noting in the post-film Q&A that it was precisely for those critics that walked out of the screening at the Rotterdam International Film Festival and refused to review it that he made Nemuri Yusurika and made it in the way he did – for those who would rather turn away than listen to the story that Sakaguchi tries to tell.

The film commences with the raped teenager, Kotono by name (the adult character is played by Komagata Miyuki), but soon jumps 17 years forward in time, where we meet Natsume (Hirano Mariko), the result of brutal attack and narrative axis of the film. The rape, we learn, shattered her mother’s innocent world, leading Kotono’s own mother to commit suicide and driving the rest of the family out of their home as Kotono, Natsume and grandfather Kai (Iwao Takushi) now live in a van at a forlorn spot under a bridge. The teenage Kotono also dropped out of school and since then has eked out a living in the dark, merciless world of a masseuse/sex-worker. The situation of the family is bleak, but it is not only the psychological impact of the rape that led to all this, rather there is another factor: the societal shaming of rape victims that makes them outcasts rather than rehabilitating them into the community – more on this later.

Kotono.

What has become an inescapable destiny for the Kotono, is for Natsume the only reality that she has ever known. With her mother having been rendered unable to speak by the sexual assault, Natsume acts as her voice, accompanying Kotono to shady love motels and playing with her pet hamster while her mother massages and then has sex with clients – all in the same room, never flinching an eye. Now that the girl herself is slowly becoming a woman, her virgin presence is a ticking time bomb, even more so because Kotono’s clients seem to have not even the slightest bit of a conscience: they know of Kotono’s past and that she is prostituting herself not only to survive but because she needs money to pay a detective – a detective whom she has hired to track down her rapist in order to seek justice.

Truth be told, it is highly disturbing to watch these men (and the woman at the motel reception), so willing to exploit the very damaged Kotono and the young Natsume, who may be about to enter pubescence but is very clearly still a child in mind (with an innocence of thought) and body (scrawny and angular, with no more than hints of breasts). The latter is apparent from several scenes of complete nudity, in which we see Natsume as well as her mother and grandfather regularly wash together in the motel bathroom. With the old man being an invalid, unable to walk, possessing no physical strength to speak of, we know he poses no threat, yet when Natsume strips all the way down in front of him, it is an uncomfortable moment and feels instinctually wrong. The scenes however are completely devoid of sexuality, portraying a cleansing ritual (both hygienic and spiritual) and emanating, more than anything, familial solidarity. It’s a striking realisation to come to: these bodies – even if completely undressed, even if breaking societal norms of what is normally permitted as in terms of communal nudity – become sexualised only through the people that objectify and physically abuse them, while the family’s bathing together simply affords them dignity.

Fleeting moments of happiness: Kotono, Natsume and Kai washing together.

Nemuri Yusurika was made on a minimal budget, the director mentioning that he persuaded two colleagues in their seventies and already in retirement to get behind the camera again. The film features no special effects and there is – despite careful composition and a few evocatively beautiful shots – no spectacular cinematography, and also no particularly notable soundtrack (in part performed by child pianist Kobayashi Aimi). Nemuri Yusurika however does not need any of this. It is driven by a powerful story and characters, giving a voice to those that are denied one – the victims of rape.

Discourses on ‘silenced victims’ are of course not just found in Japan, but the concept of shame, mentioned earlier, makes sexual assault a particularly hard cross to bear there. In response to a question on why Natsume, Kotono and Kai live in a tiny van under a bridge rather than in their house – which, it is revealed through a brief visit there, has been standing empty all these years – Sakaguchi explained that it is rape victims and their families that are shamed, not the perpetrators of crime, loss of face often forcing them out of communities they were previously part of and keeping them from speaking out and filing charges. With outdated rape laws, the persistence of rape myths (only an attack by a stranger is genuine rape) and highly incompetent handling of sexual assault cases both by the police and ill-prepared hospitals, the situation remains grim. Shockingly, there are only a handful of rape crisis centres in Japan, with no 24-hour support centre being available in 2008, something that still seems to not have changed four years later.

It is unlikely that non-Japanese viewers will be aware of these details and the way in which the societal shaming of rape victims plays out even in 2011. Nemuri Yusurika’s outspokenness is thus, at first instance, for the home audience, to provoke and stir them into action to change the status quo through showing them the bleak reality of one family’s experience of rape. Despite the loss of cultural references for anyone who is not Japanese and a viewing experience that is challenging as well as likely to trigger difficult feelings of anger, frustration and despair, Nemuri Yusurika is a film no one should look away from.

Home visit: Natsume and Kotono at the family house abandoned long ago.

Overall Verdict: Tackling a topic of absolute taboo, Nemuri Yusurika is a film that refuses to look away and challenges viewers to do the same. Although the outlook provided is undeniably bleak, the film affords its characters the dignity and humanity that they deserve.

Rating: 8.5/10

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