Bunji Sotoyama’s passion for the elderly was evident in his first work, “A Sparkle of Life.” This theme is once again explored in his newest piece, “Tea Friends,” which is inspired by a true story and shares similarities with “Shoplifters.”
The film “Tea Friends” is being shown at the Camera Japan Festival.
Mana is in charge of a team of young individuals who have created a revolutionary escort service for senior citizens called “Tea Friends”. They advertise through short notices in newspapers that appear to be seeking “tea friends”, and then send out “tea girls” to the men who respond. With many elderly men looking for both companionship and sexual satisfaction, the business is thriving, and the relationships between the young and older members of the group are very positive. One day, while shopping at a supermarket, Mana meets an elderly shoplifter named Matsuko and offers her a job. Matsuko, who has grown disheartened with her solitary later years, rediscovers happiness in being needed by others and becomes one of the most sought-after tea girls. However, as the pasts of some of the members, including Mana, resurface, and an incident draws the attention of the police, the livelihoods of everyone involved are put at risk.
In relation to the Koreeda element, the film showcases a group of individuals who are engaging in positive actions, even though they are breaking laws, until they are eventually caught by the authorities. This plot point is reminiscent of “Shoplifters.” However, “Tea Friends” is a unique and uncommon film that focuses on the sexual desires and pursuits of older individuals.
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Clearly, the topic is challenging in its presentation, but Bunji Sotoyama skillfully handles it with sensitivity and realism, showcasing one of the movie’s best qualities. One interesting aspect that emerges is the similarity between the experiences of elderly sex workers and their younger counterparts, including strange customers, pressure to appear younger, performance issues, and the circumstances that led them to this profession. This alone could carry the movie, but Sotoyama goes even further by also delving into the lives of young individuals involved in the industry, particularly Mana and her reasons for entering it. The interactions and connections between these two groups are also depicted, providing a well-rounded portrayal of the individuals and the industry as a whole.
Out of all the relationships portrayed, the one between Matsuko and Mana stands out the most. Both characters are in search of someone to support them, and eventually find solace in each other. However, their relationship as a prostitute and pimp poses a challenge for them to have a happy ending. This dynamic is the main highlight of the story. The excellent acting of Rei Okamoto as Mana adds to the impact, as she portrays both her coolness when interacting with the Tea Friends and her emotional turmoil when dealing with her family. Maki Isonishi also delivers a powerful performance as Matsuko, showing her transformation from a woman with no purpose to finding purpose through the Tea Friends, and then having her mentality change once again in a pivotal scene towards the end of the movie.
Sotoyama handles the transitions in the film, including the final one, with excellence in both presentation and placement within the story. The editing also stands out as one of the strongest aspects of the movie. However, there are some slower parts in the middle that extend the runtime to 135 minutes. Additionally, the script can feel somewhat unnatural at times, suggesting that Sotoyama may have over-managed it, although this is not a major concern.
“Tea Friends” is an exceptional title that effectively portrays a raw and intense event with authenticity and creativity. It also sheds light on the ways in which the government and society often ostracize individuals, both socially and practically. Despite a few minor flaws, this title stands out as an exceptional piece.