“Would you like to meet just once?”
That’s the typed out line that greets you on Ura Aka‘s website, set with an icon of the mysterious twitter user ‘Yuto’ (Kamio Fuju). This is sent only after the under-appreciated clothing store manager, Machiko (Takiuchi Kumi), starts a twitter account with amateur gravure photos under the name ‘March’. Machiko having made the account after noticing her empty her life had been. She decides to meet Yuto, after all it is suppose to be just once, finding that Yuto has the same feelings of unfulfillment. From there, things spiral out from the digital space of Yuto and March leaking into their real lives and relationships.
First and foremost, Ura Aka from the get-go isn’t for your typical movie audience. It was produced via the TSUTAYA CREATOR’S PROGRAM, with first time movie director, Kato Takuya at the helm. It was also created with the theme of “ここの部屋” (The room here) as well as exploring the duality of social media through the ideal of “SNSの裏を” or “Behind the scenes of SNS”. With that in mind, not only is the filming style much more stylized, but it’s also imperfect. Admittedly, the concept sounds rather pretentious in the age of the internet. Most users of this very site understand the idea of making your own ‘room’ online, as well as there being behind the scenes to every personality and profile that will never be known. To have it explored in film could be interesting, or could be reminiscent of the stranger danger talks about online predators and the like.
However, I went into this film with none of that knowledge. I didn’t even really read the English version of the plot synopsis. Somewhere online I saw that Kamio Fuju would starring in it, and so I bookmarked the website. Of course, 2020 being what it was the film was delayed it’s release for a year and came out on April 2nd.
All that being said, going in with no real prior knowledge of the film was to my benefit. There were a lot of interesting and under-used techniques used within the film that more commercially produced films don’t get to use. One of the bigger ones being the opening sequence, which didn’t shock so much as surprise me since it had me thinking I was in the wrong theater. However, it was a brilliant thread that helped tie a lot of the film together in retrospect, and really helped both frame and separate different sequences of the film.
The film also regularly utilized framing techniques and angles that really felt like a peeping tom. Sometimes our vision would be broken up by clothing racks or mannequins when Machiko was at work. Other times we’d be a short distancing away on our tip toes trying to use a mirror or window to try and see what people where hiding by having their back to the camera. These angles really captured more intimate moments, but the with jarring perspective that we are an unnoticed observer.
I think what I liked best, was actually was how social media was incorporated into the film. No PSA message vibe at all. We’d peek over someone’s shoulder to see their Instagram feed, or twitter timeline. Phones would be zoomed into so we could read the messages directly ourselves, or they would pop up on screen like a notification.
The best part was when and where the voices of those messages would come into play. Machiko would often have an internal monologue where her messages were concerned. Therefore, they wouldn’t be displayed. Strangers on the internet commenting on her post, would each have an individual voice, that would slowly pile up and get drowned out as the messages began to increase in their frequency. Most startling, was that Yuto’s text had no voice. The message would appear on screen, no sound effect to them, and no voice to narrate them either.
At first, a choice that annoyed me because it meant I had to read and read quickly before the message disappeared. But they didn’t. They were on screen long enough for a non-native like myself to read them in full, and sit with them in silence same silence as Machiko. After all, ‘we’ haven’t met Yuto yet, and don’t know what his voice sounds like. Along with Machiko we’re forced to pay attention to the message itself, and the content and context of it, thus unable to assign it a sound. As a secondary note, it really highlights the difference of how a general reply to a post feels, verses a DM. I found it incredibly striking, especially with later usage.
Story-wise, I anticipated it being more of a thriller. There’s a lot of use of long shots, which typically build up suspense only for them to be interrupted by relative mundane things. As mentioned before the establishing shot really surprised me, and suggested a significantly darker undercurrent then what was ultimately shown. I wasn’t even disappointed by this being used, so much as it took a rather well-established idea and pushed it in a new direction.
One of the best elements, at least in my opinion was the sound design. It felt significantly more intentional then many films I’ve seen recently. The main theme contrasting sharply against later scenes, and the use of natural ambient noise. Ura Aka doesn’t use any generic backing tracks to keeping the story engaging. If the scene has nothing but ambient noise, water running, the sound of a finger touching a smartphone screen, that’s all there is. The music is incorporated when and where it needs to be, nothing more.
As mentioned, I don’t consider Ura Aka a film for everyone. For those looking for something a bit more unpolished and experimental, I think this is a great film to pick. Both cast and crew, if you aren’t familiar with them, hold a lot of promise as well.