Editor’s Notes: The following review is part of our coverage for Japan: The New York Festival of Contemporary Japanese Cinema. For more information of this film series visit www.japansociety.org and follow Japan Society Film on Twitter at @js_film_nyc.
Ando Momoko’s second feature film is based on her first novel of the same name. Like Tsuta Tsuichiro with his second feature, with 0.5mm Ando proves that she is a bold cinematic storytelling force to be reckoned with. The film follows the ‘journeyman years’ of care worker Sawa (Ando Sakura, the filmmaker’s sister), who goes from place to place to provide her services and ensure a roof over her head, however temporarily. She is particularly drawn to elderly men and accosts them at vulnerable moments in public places to wiggle her way into their lives and care for them. On the surface, Sawa appears to simply prey on these men with the goal of material gains. But through the accumulation of her interactions, Ando addresses the lonely life of the substantial aging community in Japan and, by extension, the social disconnect between generations. Like Tsuta’s second feature, Ando’s 0.5mm is epic in scope, with a running time of nearly three-and-a-half hours. But distinct about Ando’s film is that its subject may be small in scale but the sensitivity, frankness, empathy, dark sense of humour, and imaginative spirit with which she tackles them through Sawa is unrivaled in recent Japanese cinema.
… with 0.5mm Ando proves that she is a bold cinematic storytelling force to be reckoned with.
Ando makes apparent this combination of features in the opening scene of Sawa at work. As she changes an elderly man’s clothes, he suddenly urinates, and she grabs the closest thing to her to catch the urine and prevent it from falling on her: a coffee mug with a happy face. This happy face moment is a kind of punchline to a lengthy scene that introduces the labour of Sawa’s occupation and her meticulous, efficient approach and easy-going nature as a care worker, in spite of the arduous duties. But simultaneously, it also reflects the ‘0.5mm spirit’ that one of her future elderly male charges discusses and how Sawa is an example of this rare spirit. When she agrees to fulfill the elderly man’s last wish, things do not unfold as smoothly as expected—for Sawa or the family. As a result, Sawa is fired from her agency. No family to go to and no home to return to, Sawa sets to wandering to meet a variety of amusing and finely drawn characters. The film is then a careful representation, and argument, of what the ‘0.5mm spirit’ means and why Sawa possesses it through her nomadic life/work.
Part of Sawa’s engaging spirit is in the aggressive, breakneck way that she enters the world of her chosen target, be it the elderly man who is confusedly asking for room rates at a karaoke; Ishiguro (Sakata Toshio, formerly of the comic duo Comedy No. 1), the peculiar bicycle stealer who lives by himself; or the retired professor Makabe (Tsugawa Masahiko) who wanders outside and harbours a schoolgirl fetish. She literally barges into their lives and latches on to them either by pretending to know them or threatening to expose their little vices to the world. They are understandably startled, cantankerous, and callous towards her for being so persistently invasive—the ‘carer from hell,’ Makabe mutters at one point—but nothing fazes her; in fact, she meets their negative energy with her upbeat energy. But once they calm down from the surprise, they adapt rather quickly to Sawa’s presence in their lives, developing very much like father-daughter relationships, with its ups and downs but always underlined with concern and care for each other.
The disconnect between generations is a thread that runs throughout the film, beginning with the first family and its dismantling.
Her efficiency in duties, her cooking, and her relaxed manner after the initial pushiness inevitably win them over, and bring about a softening of their rough edges. The kind of bond that she develops with each of them by hanging out at a karaoke, returning stolen bicycles, and preparing meals is genuinely touching in their portrayal. Even when Makabe takes her to see an erotic film, she is unruffled. She accepts these men for who they are, without judgment. Sawa is unflagging in her energy, if only to survive, yet she never forgets her care worker role. It is precisely this characteristic that gradually points to the absence of children in these men’s lives.
The disconnect between generations is a thread that runs throughout the film, beginning with the first family and its dismantling. (A further dismantling of this family later in the film brings the story back full circle in an unexpected way.) The karaoke man’s frustration/anger towards his son and family’s bickering over his money; Ishiguro’s troubled relationship with his children who do not visit him; and the Makabes’ niece Hisako and her story of hating having to care for her mother; all of these seemingly trifle anecdotes actually lay bare this disconnect in a refreshingly subtle and biting way without necessarily demonising anyone.
In a sense, 0.5mm is like a satire of ‘fallen women’ tales. These films are picaresque by nature in that they follow a woman whose itinerant experiences in life are increasingly debasing and often conclude with her death, like Life of Oharu (1952, Mizoguchi Kenji) or more recently Memories of Matsuko (2007, Nakashima Tetsuya). We can also mention The Insect Woman (1963, Imamura Shohei). But 0.5MM is less a parody of this film than a kindred spirit through the shared characteristic of a strong female character who never dies, though she is consigned to live in a Sisyphean way. In this regard, the film is very much about female resilience and servitude.
In a sense, 0.5mm is like a satire of ‘fallen women’ tales. These films are picaresque by nature in that they follow a woman whose itinerant experiences in life are increasingly debasing and often conclude with her death, like Life of Oharu (1952, Mizoguchi Kenji) or more recently Memories of Matsuko (2007, Nakashima Tetsuya).