The one night celebration of actress Sakura Ando at this summer’s Japan Cuts Festival of contemporary Japanese cinema demonstrates that in order to have a retrospective showing the diversity and breadth of her work, you need a minimum of just two of her films. On this occasion, the Japan Society will show Asleep and 100 Yen Love, two of her most recent films in which she plays characters that are physically and mentally different enough to be mistaken for being portrayed by two different actresses. They join an already substantial cast of powerful, multi-dimensional figures embodied by the talented second generation actress (she is the daughter of acclaimed actor Eiji Okuda), some of which may be familiar to fans of Japanese cinema without realizing it. In Sion Sono’s epic Love Exposure, she played a sexually antagonistic and emotionally damaged cult leader. In an episode of Kiyoshi Kurosawa’s television project Penance she played a bearish introvert. And in .5mm, a film featured in last year’s Japan Cuts lineup directed by her sister Momo Ando, she led a tour de force charge as an every(wo)man with seemingly no past who served as a collective conscience of a male dominated Japanese society, humbling and healing all those she encountered, all the while desperately in need of healing herself.
While perhaps not of the visionary scope of those past works, the films book ending the evening when Ando will be presented with the festival’s own ‘Cut Above’ distinction for rising talent, are not only showcases of her range, but are captivating in their own right. 100 Yen Love finds Ando as Ichiko, a 30 something who is severely stuck in neutral, living at home and just barely helping out with her family’s bento shop downstairs. Here her body language and demeanor most closely resemble her turn in Penance, as she lumbers about awkwardly, often scratching herself gracelessly. At least at first. Through both ups and downs, she tries to first get a life and then get it together, eventually finding herself pursuing a career in amateur boxing. It represents not only a path toward making a mark, but also her character’s resolve to no longer be a victim of either circumstance or real world physical violence.
It starts with an unflinching picture of dysfunctional family life in the throes of economically struggling, with Ichiko’s sister having just returned to the cramped apartment home with a young son. She instantly engages her loafing sister in physical and verbal battle, leading to Ichiko leaving home. Their chaotic sparring is both can’t look away shocking and good for evoking uncomfortable laughter.
Other sources of deadpan laughter appear early on, like the convenience store devoted to giving its patrons a merely 100 yen (about a dollar) lifestyle, which Ichiko both frequents and later works for, along with its motley assortment of employees and customers. After a while, the discomfort factor around some situations increases, while laughs seem to be expected but are a bit hard to achieve; the constraints of the gallows humor squeeze a bit too tight. Ando's transformation feels as though it’s staged a bit too late and too quickly to get fully behind.
But the film is admirable for its adherence to its oddball aesthetic and its utter lack of clichés. It never reaches the extremes of a Cinderella story. Instead it's a story of redemption in which triumph does not necessarily mean achieving victory; the transformative journey is itself reward.
While 100 Yen Love seems positioned to be the main event, I was more awed by Andou’s performance in Asleep. Herein lies a reduction where, compared to other films she has appeared in, the actress has lost a considerable amount of weight to take on the almost unhealthily waifish, introspective lead in the film. It’s a far more inward looking role than other performances where her expressiveness bubbles right to the surface.
Asleep is minimalist to its core. Its protagonist, Teruko, drifts about a languid Tokyo, engaging characters that dwell in isolation, struggling to connect. A friend speaks of receiving money from men for sleeping next to them and nothing more. Teruko begins dating a man who is presently married, his wife in coma. Their emotions are stuck in amber. Tokyo’s usual frenetic likeness is traded in for places that evoke solitude: a stoic Chinese restaurant, a desolate parking garage. The film has a fragile beauty to it, a wisp so slight as if threatening to be blown away by the slightest gust.
The pleasure of seeing Sakura Andou’s diverse and powerful performances will not be a small, especially with the actress their in person to join in on the celebration.