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Film Review: Yoko (2023) by Kazuyoshi Kumakiri
Film Review: Yoko (2023) by Kazuyoshi Kumakiri

Film Review: Yoko (2023) by Kazuyoshi Kumakiri

In recent years, road movies have become increasingly popular in the Japanese film industry, especially after the “recovery” following the Fukushima disaster, which occurred ten years ago. Kazuyoshi Kumakiri is one of the directors who has created a road movie, but the movie also incorporates other themes and won multiple awards in Shanghai, thanks to Rinko Kikuchi’s outstanding performance.

The main character in the movie, who has been nominated for an Oscar, is a 42-year-old single woman living alone in Tokyo. She works part-time as an online customer support representative and rarely leaves her apartment due to her strong agoraphobia and depression. However, her cousin Shigeru unexpectedly visits her to inform her of their estranged father’s death after 20 years. This forces Yoko to leave her apartment and accompany Shigeru and his family to her hometown of Hirosaki, Aomori. During the journey, Yoko’s situation takes a turn for the worse when Shigeru briefly leaves her alone at a rest stop. She then decides to hitchhike the remaining 658 km distance from Tokyo to Hirosaki, as depicted in the Japanese title “658km, Yoko no Tabi.”

Read the interview with the director.

In typical road movie fashion, Kazuyoshi Kumakiri structures his narrative episodically, using each encounter Yoko has as an opportunity to make social commentary and delve deeper into the protagonist’s character. Yoko’s detachment from her family and society is effectively portrayed through her initial discomfort in interacting with her cousin and his family. Risa, who is both cheerful and fearful of the world, offers Yoko some solace and helps her gain courage. Journalist Kenta’s discussion about the Fukushima disaster serves as a commentary on current events and also serves as a metaphor for the questionable actions of some professionals, such as novelists and men in general. Similarly, Yoko’s interactions with an older couple also touch upon the disaster. The appearance of her father as a ghost sheds light on their relationship and the reasons behind Yoko’s isolation. Additionally, the inclusion of Joe Odagiri in the cast adds to the overall enjoyment of the film.

In general, this method is effective for providing entertainment, largely due to Rinko Kikuchi’s exceptional portrayal of the main character. She effectively conveys her negative emotions with minimal dialogue, amplifying the impact of her exaggerated reactions and speech. However, the idea of how she becomes isolated and the circumstances in which she encounters other characters can be seen as unrealistic and irrational. Additionally, while her monologue is impressively executed, it appears forced into the story and at times the film veers into melodramatic territory, which also feels contrived.

The feedback, especially those related to Yoko’s past trauma and her struggle to move forward, effectively convey the impact it has had on her life. This is portrayed through both Yoko’s character and her interactions with others. While the resolution could have been integrated more seamlessly, it serves as a satisfying conclusion to the narrative.

In regards to production quality, DP Taku Kobayashi’s camera closely follows Kikuchi with numerous close-up shots, while the depiction of the areas she travels through reflects her pessimistic mindset. This is done in a detailed and intricate manner. The editing creates a deliberate and unhurried pace, as Kumakiri takes his time with each scene, aligning with the overall visual style of the film.

Meticulously made, slow burning, and fostering an impressive dramatic performance in its epicenter, “Yoko” looks like one of those films that will definitely have a successful festival run, and perhaps even reach beyond that due to its protagonist. Apart from this, though, it does not feel particularly different than the plethora of similar films coming out of Japan.