As a child, one of my longest-running daydreams was the idea that the spaces I spent time in every day—my home, my school—had separate, secret rooms that I’d never seen before. If I opened a certain door at a certain time, I thought, I’d reveal a whole other space that had always been there, hidden in plain sight. Or maybe even a different version of my own home or school, complete with different furniture and different inhabitants, along the lines of Neil Gaiman’s Coraline.
Yui Kiyohara’s Our House (Watashitachi no ie) imagines a similar setup—what if there’s another version of your home? What if completely different people are simultaneously living out their lives in a house that looks exactly like yours, and your only knowledge of their existence is the occasional noise or hole poked in the paper of a screen door?
This is the question at the heart of Kiyohara’s quiet, mood-rich film. The first set of characters we meet in the mysterious home are 13-year-old Seri (Nodoka Kawanishi) and her mother, Kiriko (Yukiko Yasuno), who seem to have a healthy and loving relationship, except for Seri’s dislike of her mother’s new boyfriend. Then the scene shifts to a ferry, where a woman (Mariwo Osawa) wakes up remembering only her name, Sana. She immediately encounters another woman named Toko (Mei Fujiwara), whose demeanor suggests something otherworldly. For reasons that are never really clear, Toko takes Sana home with her and becomes her friend and caretaker. Toko’s home, we immediately realize, is exactly the same as Seri and her mother’s home.
And what an odd home it is. The entrance is a roll-up metal grille that reveals a folding plastic curtain for a front door, suggesting that the house used to be a shop. It’s in the same building as an actual shop with a “tobacco” sign that never seems to be open. Though the exterior is drab and resembles most urban facades in large Japanese cities, the interior looks very traditional, with tatami floors, weathered wooden stairs and beams, and paper screen doors. It’s as if the apartment, like the characters who inhabit different versions of it, is split between two worlds.
Kiyohara’s film won the Grand Prix at the 2017 PIA film festival, a festival which often features a mix of student project-ish films and more polished work. Our House does feel at times more like an experiment in narrative than a finished product. But the performances are solid enough, the aesthetic choices interesting enough, and the directing polished enough that’s it’s still possible to be sucked in.
When it comes to framing, color, and lighting, Kiyohara likely owes a lot to veteran director Kiyoshi Kurosawa, her professor at Tokyo University of the Arts. Kiyohara and her team have taken great care with how this small apartment is filmed, recalling the way that Kurosawa’s films frequently elevate average writing via interesting aesthetic choices and intriguing performances. Through distinct lighting, editing, and framing choices, it often feels like we’re in two different apartment spaces, even though technically they’re the same. Seri and her mother’s version is bathed in golden light, with frequent daytime shots. Sana and Toko’s version, though, feels darker and more claustrophobic, both because it’s literally filmed at night and because we see less of the house.
The performances also have a way of differentiating the two spaces, making it seem as though the two sets of characters inhabit universes with slightly different rules. As Seri, Nodoka Kawanishi is charming and believable, and her relationships with her mother and her school friends are warm and authentic. Their story seems to exist in the world as we know it. With Sana and Toko, though, something is off. Toko speaks in a strange sort of deadpan, and she has mysterious meetings and phone calls that she tells Sana not to ask her about. Does she really have Sana’s best interests at heart? Does she know more than she’s letting on about the strange nature of the apartment?
Kiyohara also takes after Kurosawa in the film’s apparent desire not to offer any clear resolutions or answers to these and the other questions it raises. In another film (perhaps a longer one—Our House runs only 80 minutes), the “one house, two stories” premise might have been the setup for some sort of dramatic reveal. But we never really get a clear sense of why things are the way they are. Which isn’t necessarily a bad thing, because everything that surrounds the film’s central premise—the characters, their evolving relationships, the way the camera depicts them—is much more interesting.
This is Kiyohara’s second feature-length film, and it’s not really fair to compare her to a veteran like Kurosawa, even if such comparisons are inevitable. But while Our House has a slightly unfinished feel, it’s still a remarkably assured piece of work, and I’m looking forward to seeing more from Kiyohara.