“Talking to you is like talking to myself.”
So says protagonist Yoshika Eto’s crush, the elusive “Ichi,” at a key moment in Katte ni furuetero (Tremble All You Want). In a movie about the messiness of young love, his words encapsulate a central feature of dating, crushes, and falling in love in your teens and twenties—you want someone who is a copy of yourself. For Yoshika, the fact that “Ichi” shares her love of extinct animals and ancient fossils is enough to confirm that her crush is justified, even if her concept of him is almost entirely based on fantasy.
Beyond its familiar story of young love, Tremble is also intrigued by the lies we tell ourselves about who we are and the nature of our relationships. As much as we might like to see ourselves as connected to other people, are we in fact the centers of our own universes, with everyone around us playing bit parts? Can we really trust our feelings about other people, or are they always based on illusions? In a country where more and more young people claim to feel a sense of isolation from family and friends, or to lack an ibasho (space of refuge), these are timely questions. They fit surprisingly well into a movie that seems, on the surface, to be a lighthearted rom-com, but turns out to have plenty of moments of real depth.
The film stars the wonderfully charismatic Mayu Matsuoka as Yoshika, an awkward twenty-something who has never let go of a crush that began in junior high school, despite the fact that she hasn’t interacted with the object of her affections in years. She refers to him as “Ichi” (“number one”). Thoughts of him consume her, and she talks about him to anyone who will listen—her ocarina-playing neighbor, the elderly woman knitting on the bus, the older man fishing by the river.
Yoshika works as a clerk in a dreary-looking company, where a goofy, overly enthusiastic co-worker (Daichi Watanabe), who Yoshika refers to as “Ni” (“number two”), is clearly smitten with her. Will she eventually fall for the the “real” man, or will she remain devoted to the one who mostly exists in her head?
The answer to that question probably won’t surprise anyone, but what Tremble lacks in originality it makes up for in great performances, snappy writing, and a consistently silly (but not manic) tone that isn’t afraid to occasionally embrace moments of genuine feeling. Director Akiko Ohku also wrote the screenplay, which is based on a novel by Risa Wataya, who’s been winning literary awards since she was seventeen. The combination of Wataya, star Mayu Matsuoka, and Ohku (whose previous films have focused on young women and female friendship) works well to create a cohesive, tonally consistent movie that seems to understand and empathize deeply with its characters. The film won the Audience Award at the 2017 Tokyo International Film Festival and seems poised to do well domestically (the first screening I tried to attend in Shinjuku was sold out, and an early-morning screening the next day was fairly full).
To say that the twenty-two-year-old Matsuoka carries Tremble is an understatement. She’s in every single scene, and the camera is never away from her face for more than a few seconds. Though conventionally attractive, she manages to convince us that she’s a hapless wallflower, with her permanently out-of-place hair, dowdy-but-colorful clothes, and oversized glasses. Her moods are erratic—one minute she’s swooning over a giant mollusc fossil, the next moment she’s screaming fuuuuuck in frustration or giving an all-too-familiar eyeroll to the social niceties that she has to engage in at work and among friends. Importantly, she’s not always likeable—she’s frequently self-absorbed and often insensitive to the feelings of others. But she reveals a capacity for growth and self-reflection (while thankfully never being shoehorned into an unrealistic transformation from ugly duckling to swan). And the moments when her goofy persona cracks to reveal inner loneliness and pain feel authentic, the tears for once real and heartfelt. In pulling off this performance, Matsuoka has more poise and self-assurance than many an actor with much more experience.
As “Ni,” Daichi Watanabe doesn’t initially appear to be an appealing love interest—he’s a doofus and a bit of a puppy dog. But over time he reveals that he may understand Yoshika better than anyone—certainly better than “Ichi,” who exists more in Yoshika’s mind than in the real world.
This is another feature of youthful romance that Tremble gets right—the allure of the elusive or unknown love interest, combined with the tendency to ignore or shun the potential partner who seems actively, openly interested in you. Sort of like not wanting to join a club that would have you as a member. “Ni” lacks mystery, but his particular brand of zaniness may just be the perfect match for Yoshika, who no one would ever accuse of being down-to-earth.
Yoshika is also surrounded by a who’s who of talented Japanese performers: Kanji Furutachi as the fisherman, Hairi Katagiri as the neighbor, Syuri as a perpetually smiling waitress in Yoshika’s favorite cafe. These could have been throwaway roles, but Ohku’s screenplay and direction give them layers, which becomes especially important in the second half of the film, when certain truths about them are revealed.
Contemporary Japanese love stories or “love comedies” often feel contrived and manipulative, with the “comedy” arising out of slapstick physicality or retrograde ideas about gender roles. Tremble All You Want won me over because in spite of its fantastical and zany tone, it feels authentic. The story is true to its characters and Mayu Matsuoka has charisma to burn. I smiled and laughed a lot, and sometimes that’s enough.