Woman Of The Photographs opens with a reflection in a shop window, a small photo studio in an unspecified Japanese city. Sai (Hideki Nagai), the owner and only photographer, steps out to clean the glass. As we watch him go through his daily routine, its clear he is a fastidious sort, and a bit solitary. He delicately wipes the fingerprints from the door handle and makes sure to finish dusting before dealing with his first customer.
Sai’s photography shop is your standard one hour photo; handling passports, identification and some basic portraiture. As an added incentive, he also offers on-site retouching. Sai is a near silent blank slate in a series of immaculate cream and white suits. Perhaps because of the lack of perceived judgement, his customers seem very comfortable requesting exactly what they see as the “necessary” adjustments to their pictures.
A local businessman, Saijo (Toshiaki Inomata) has his corporate headshots regularly retouched to appear like the distinguished up-and-coming salaryman he must have been twenty years earlier. Hisako (Toki Koinuma) is a woman seeking a photograph to provide to a matchmaking service. She asks for her image to be made more conventionally attractive, her eyes and bust line artificially large. Still unsatisfied, Hisako requests such a long list of edits that she is unrecognizable in the final composite result.
A model named Kyoko (professional ballerina Itsuki Otaki) literally crashes into Sai’s life. While doing some nature photography in a nearby forest, he finds her injured and bleeding after a fall from a tree. What begins as an offer of a ride back into town to get help, becomes a relationship that starts to take over Sai’s entire life.
It is obvious from their first meeting that Sai and Kyoko are headed toward disaster. Sai can’t relate to the world (women in particular) without a camera in his hand to distance himself, and Kyoko’s shaky self esteem is not improved in the slightest by her waning career as an influencer on an Instagram-like platform. The ride becomes dinner. Dinner becomes Kyoko platonically spending the night, and soon she is living with Sai in his small apartment behind the studio. He acts as her personal photographer and retoucher for daily updates to her feed.
Woman of the Photographs is a very slow burn, with two thirds of the runtime staying mostly in deceptive slice-of-life territory. The film only starts incrementally building up to the darker terrain of body horror and obsession in its final act. In fact, we don’t even learn the protagonist’s name until the closing credits. Thankfully, there is plenty of careful craftsmanship in the film’s aesthetic and sonic choices to help ease the long journey to the narrative’s conclusion.
Yu Oishi’s cinematography cleverly keeps the characters from ever looking too closely at themselves, or each other. Sai’s laconic nature and the small cast of characters eliminate the need for much dialog or face to face interaction. Instead of traditional close ups, the characters see themselves in mirror images, reflections from windows, puddles, computer screens or a cell phone’s camera roll.
In a film that is all about the lies we tell ourselves, and the carefully curated forgeries we present as our authentic lives on social media, Masahiro Yui’s sound design masterfully adds to the sense of disconnection. The film is mostly free of non-incidental music, but the sound effects are purposefully loud. Every spot missed while shaving, vigorous bout of chewing, or scrape of a stylus on a tablet becomes a tangible aural reminder of the flaws lying beneath.
Where Woman of the Photographs falters is in not trusting the abundant technical skills of its crew or the nuanced, believably fragile performances of its actors. Given the glacial pacing, the overuse of some of the more heavy-handed metaphors begin to feel like deeply unnecessary handholding. Inset shots of Sai’s pet praying mantis devouring table scraps, or the thunderous golden glow of applause that accompanies Kyoko’s more popular social media posts are as subtle as a sledgehammer in making the film’s central points. Director Takeshi Kushida choosing to use both devices several more times just feels like overkill.
Overall, Woman of the Photographs can’t quite shake its pacing issues, but there is a very elegant bone structure beneath the occasional excesses. Takeshi Kushida has released a very solid first feature film, and I’ll certainly be on the lookout for a sophomore effort. An interesting slide into psychosexual darkness awaits viewers with the patience to admire the journey on the way down.
Wicked Rating – 6.5/10
Director: Takeshi Kushida
Writer(s): Takeshi Kushida
Stars: Hideki Nagai, Itsuki Otaki, Toshiaki Inomata, Toki Koinuma
Studio/Production Company: Pyramid Film Inc.
Run Time: 89 minutes