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Review of the movie “Tsugaru Lacquer Girl” (2023) directed by Keiko Tsuruoka.
Review of the movie "Tsugaru Lacquer Girl" (2023) directed by Keiko Tsuruoka.

Review of the movie “Tsugaru Lacquer Girl” (2023) directed by Keiko Tsuruoka.

In the past 50 years, Tsugaru city has been featured in several films, including ATG’s “Tsugaru Folk Song.” A new movie now highlights the lacquerware industry in the area and offers social commentary on the challenges of breaking away from tradition in this region. The film is based on Miyuki Takamori’s novel “Japan Dignity.”

The film “Tsugaru Lacquer Girl” is being shown at the Camera Japan festival.

The Aoki family has a long history of creating traditional lacquer kitchenware. However, their business is struggling and Seishiro’s father, who was once financially successful, is no longer able to provide support. Despite this, Seishiro continues to work hard in the craft, with the assistance of his daughter Miyako. Miyako also works at a supermarket to help make ends meet. Seishiro hopes that his son Yu will take over the business, but Yu has no interest in the art and eventually reveals that he plans to leave the area. Miyako, who has always dreamed of pursuing a career in Tsugaru-nuri, is unable to openly express her desires due to the pressures of patriarchy. However, as she confronts her family and the art of lacquering, she takes on a challenging project involving a piano at the local school.

Keiko Tsuruoka is the director of a film that follows two main storylines. The first centers around a family’s relationships, while the second highlights a specific type of lacquerware. The latter is visually stunning, with Tsuruoka expertly showcasing each step of the meticulous process, from selecting wooden utensils to the final product. These scenes are particularly memorable and the one featuring the father and daughter working together is especially visually impressive. Wataru Takahashi’s cinematography, which has a documentary-like style, reaches its peak in this scene.

Also, make sure to watch this interview as well.

The specific scene also highlights the dynamic between Seishiro and Miyako. She is caring, supportive, and skilled in her art, while he chooses to ignore her in favor of her son, even when he makes it clear he wants no part in their project. This leads to the second half of the movie where Miyako tries to persuade her father, but also struggles with her own future due to financial struggles. Additionally, Seishiro’s acceptance and understanding of his children’s true identities is a major aspect of the story, showcasing his adaptation to the changing times and reality.

That Tsuruoka presents the father not as a villain, but as a “slave” of tradition and his own mind, emerges as rather realistic, essentially dictating the whole narrative approach here, that has very few outbreaks, with the one during the son meeting being the most intense. At the same time, this scene also emerges as one of the weakest, particularly due to Ryota Bando’s acting, whose lack of measure mirrors the bad writing of the part, as both fail to justify the particular behavior. 

During moments of tranquility and the display of the artform, the movie excels with its editing, creating a slow and deliberate pace that reflects the specific procedures being depicted. There are some slow parts, but they do not significantly detract from the overall quality of the film.

The serenity of the performances extends beyond just one character. Seishiro, played by Kaoru Kobayashi, maintains a constant sense of calm even when faced with difficult situations. This trait is also seen in Miyako, played by Mayu Hotta, highlighting the similarities between father and daughter while also setting them apart from Yu. Hotta’s quiet dedication to her work is one of the standout elements of the film, adding to the overall strong performances.

“Tsugaru Lacquer Girl” could be described as ‘too Japanese’ considering the presentation of this very specific art and its approach to family drama, but is definitely a very rewarding movie that combines its two main themes artfully. Furthermore, it definitely succeeds in drawing interest in the particular lacquer ware, thus succeeding in what was, probably, its main goal.