In late June, the three editors of Midnight Eye published a text detailing their decision to close up shop after fifteen years as one of the leading English-language resources for Japanese film. While they gave several reasons, one rang louder than others: the Japanese film scene just wasn’t cutting it. “Filmmaking in Japan,” the editors wrote, “has largely polarized, with very high budgets (by Japanese standards, i.e. US $10 million or a multiple of it) on the one extreme and no-budget indie (or amateur) filmmaking on the other.” In the face of this disparity, they noted, the latter faces considerable challenges in establishing any form of sustainability.
It’s a serious concern, albeit one that affects directors and producers more than performers. As in the West, actors in Japan aren’t as hindered by financing and distribution barriers, but are instead able to flit between the worlds of big budgets and big names, and smaller productions, as well as television. Such has been the case with Sakura Ando, who, at twenty-nine, has emerged as one of the leading talents working in Japanese film. While her unique and understated style has grown increasingly refined over her relatively short career, a number of recent starring roles have foregrounded Ando’s dexterity, her ability to balance the near-somnambulism of a Bressonian model with an unexpected fervor. Ando has appeared in several of the strongest Japanese fiction films of recent years, with her performances invariably among the films’ most memorable qualities and—as in the case of Momoko Ando’s 0.5mm, the finest of the bunch—the greatness of the film is near-inextricable from her personal magnetism.
The Japan Cuts Film Festival, hosted every July by New York’s Japan Society, has been a regular conduit to Ando’s work for North American audiences. This year it recognized her with its Cut Above Award for Cinematic Excellence in light of the North American premieres of recent starring roles in Masaharu Take’s 100 Yen Love and Shingo Wakagi’s Asleep. Elsewhere in the festival, Ando made a third, smaller, appearance in Ryuichi Hiroki’s Her Granddaughter, further evidence of her current high demand.
Efforts to ascribe any fixed adjectives to Ando’s acting style can be a challenge, as she so often manages to teeter precariously between seemingly opposite poles: from a concerted vigor and lighter-than-air naturalism; to a cool, distanced reserve; to an animated kineticism. She can appear with unkempt frumpiness, her long, dirty hair matched by jerky gestures and brusque tones, or with clean-cut refinement, her movements elegant and her voice gentle. While roles frequently land closer to one extreme or the other, what sets Ando apart is that the opposite attributes are never wholly absent, frequently revealing themselves in unexpected and rewarding moments. There is a unique magnetism in watching the performance of a character that seems fully inhabited yet incomplete, making the audience eager to locate the elusive concord.
Ando’s first starring role arrived courtesy of Out of the Wind (2008), directed by her father, the acclaimed actor and filmmaker Eiji Okuda, but her proper breakthrough came later that year, with Sion Sono’s raucous cult classic Love Exposure. Ando played a secondary character intermittently swept up in the film’s frenzy of sex, religion, violence, and love; the film’s four hours ensured she had a considerable amount of screen presence, and it is here we see the first emergence of the tension between calm reserve and animation in Ando’s style. Throughout her filmography such a tension is either localized within a single, dynamic performance, or between her character and the cinematic world around them. As a whole, Love Exposure leans more towards the latter, with Ando serving as the cool counterpoint to the film’s propulsive frenzy. Playing the disturbed and disaffected leader of a cult movement known as the Zero Church, Ando delivers her performance clothed head to toe in white, and with her penetrating blank stare, it’s hard not to recall Malcolm McDowell’s apathetic Alex of A Clockwork Orange as Ando unblinkingly cuts through the chaos around her.
While more boisterous performances are rare in Ando’s filmography, other early roles demonstrate her propensity for broad humor, as the obverse to a reserved veneer. In a minor but memorable role, Ando plays a model for a girlie magazine who comes to life in Kazumi Kobayashi’s cartoonish Crime or Punishment?!? (2009). Her character emerges from the page itself, her performance quite literally fleshed out as it moves from two to three dimensions. Among her goofiest onscreen appearances, it’s still offset by an uncanniness that disallows pure zaniness.
Frequently, Ando’s moments of energy emerge out of an established stoicism. In her role in Kiyoshi Kurosawa’s television miniseries Penance (2012), Ando plays a woman marked by the murder of a childhood playmate and an undefined atonement she owes to the latter’s mother. Shabbily dressed and impassive, Ando seems locked in a perpetual adolescence, shuffling halfheartedly around her family’s home until a reminder of the initial trauma triggers an episode of unexpected and jarring violence.
In many ways, Ando’s role in this hour-long episode almost serves as a trial run for her performance in 100 Yen Love, one of the centerpiece films of this year’s Japan Cuts. Ostensibly a comedy, the film introduces us to Ando’s slovenly, cranky character with a montage of her lying zoned-out on the couch, playing video games, drinking soda, and making trips to the local 24-hour convenience store for more junk food—the same store where she ultimately lands work as familial conflicts force her out of her home. From here, the plot unfortunately flounders, unsure whether to focus on the burgeoning romance between Ando’s character and a neighborhood boxing trainer, her family saga, or—once her character takes up boxing herself— to reimagine itself as a sports drama. While Ando is fully capable of negotiating unpredictable and knotty plots, this unevenness feels at odds with her sensibility; the spotty and shapeless script means that any drama that might emerge from Ando’s disaffected protagonist’s navigation of unfamiliar scenes and episodes ultimately falls short.
What Ando does in 100 Yen Love, however, is distinguish between acting restraint and idleness. While efforts to reconcile her role in the narrative can feel fraught, there remains a clear rigor to the performance. The flare-ups and flourishes that come early in the film—prompting her initial move out of her family home—gradually fade, almost as if Ando attempts to offer some consistency to the film through her unwavering reticence, localized in her near-perpetual expression of perplexed aversion.
In 100 Yen Love, her reserve serves to anchor an overloaded plot, but it’s a device that’s used for more expressive means in Asleep, Ando’s latest role, in which her character’s placidity balances the swirl of an appropriately oneiric, non-linear narrative. In Asleep, Ando again inhabits a blank and meek figure, this time grappling with depression rather than any form of stunted adolescence. Adapted from Banana Yoshimoto’s 1989 novel, the plot is spacious and elliptical, following Ando as the apathetic Terako, a young woman who drifts into a relationship with a married man distraught about his comatose wife. Asleep is indicative of one trend in Ando’s recent performances, in which her capacity for exuberance is diminished in favor of a pervasive reserve, albeit one that belies an unseen anxiety.
The dual nature present in many of her roles remains, but is reimagined here in clever ways. In Asleep, as in Nao Kubota’s Homeland (2014) and Hiroshi Ishikawa’s Petal Dance (2013), any explicit confrontation, excised from the narrative proper, instead takes the form of an unseen but powerful trauma that serves to produce a lingering impression, like the sober echo of an unheard gunshot. Tellingly, the depression Ando’s characters suffer in both Asleep and Petal Dance is gradually revealed to stem from a friend’s suicide or suicide attempt. In Homeland it is the 2011 Fukushima nuclear crisis.
As a performer, Ando subtly takes up just the amount of space that she’s allowed, able to swell or diminish her presence and force as needed. In a film like Asleep she effectively carries the entire narrative, yet just as effortlessly inhabits ensemble or guest spots, like her small role in the Japan Cuts selection Her Granddaughter. On the expansive end of the spectrum sits 0.5mm, Ando’s most impressive performance to date. Written and directed by Ando’s sister Momoko Ando, it is perhaps unsurprising that it seems the role best suited to Ando’s strengths, with its refined oscillation between disaffection and bursts of high energy. Present in nearly every one of the film’s 198 minutes, Ando drifts across Japan in a series of circular episodes that find her taking up with a series of men through blackmail, extortion, trickery, and caregiving. Turning on a dime as needed in order to intimidate or charm, she gradually settles into each situation, the plot momentarily, deceptively lulled into the routine of cooking and domestic life, before it is thrown back into flux through unexpected twists. The marvel of the film, and of Ando’s performance, lies in how surprising each moment becomes: thanks to the film’s protracted running time, each episode allows enough space and time for Ando to wholly inhabit each new role, which the audience grows familiar and comfortable with right until the film once again pivots sharply.
Similar to the way Asleep uses repeated scenes and gestures, in 0.5mm Ando’s minimalist tendencies are elongated and each repeated scene serves a cumulative effect, with her character’s forced relocations increasingly desperate and laden. While Ando’s fluctuations ensure a certain dynamism, one recalls Delphine Seyrig’s performance as the eponymous Jeanne Dielman in Chantal Akerman’s 1974 film. A mere 3 minutes longer than 0.5mm, it’s an effective touchpoint, especially with their shared themes of domestic ennui. And while Seyrig’s drawn-out tasks offer more rigorous reflections on issues of “women’s work,” Ando’s errant nature and adaptable demeanor provides an additional comment on the precarious state of contemporary labor. By the film’s end one feels appropriately exhausted, as if they’ve spent the entire time with both Ando and countless variations, but equally excited, wondering how many more are yet to be revealed.
Japan Cuts 2015 ran from July 9th to 19th at Japan Society.
JESSE CUMMING is a researcher, writer, and film programmer based in Toronto. He is an M.A. candidate in York and Ryerson University's joint Communication and Culture program.