It’s difficult to separate first-time director Non’s film Ribbon from its creator’s story of taking on Japan’s notoriously abusive entertainment industry, where performers often exist in a state of indentured servitude and stepping out of line can effectively blacklist someone for life. It’s even worse in the “idol” industry, where very young women and their parents often sign contracts that require ridiculously long working hours for very little pay. And the tight relationships between talent agencies and TV/film/music studios means that any performer who challenges the system will likely be unable to get work anywhere. TV and film studios that try to work with a blacklisted artist run the risk of losing access to every other celebrity on a particular agency’s roster.
This is apparently what happened to Non, who shot to fame at 19 as the lead in the NHK drama Amachan in 2013. At that time, her agency was paying her a measly 50,000 yen (about USD$450) per month, and even after her contract ended, the agency claimed that she could no longer work under her own name. Rather than give in to the agency’s demands, Nonen rebranded herself as Non and focused more on music and other creative pursuits. According to her new management, she’s had dozens of offers to appear on TV, but every time, just before production is set to begin, the studio receives a threatening phone call from her former agency and the offer is rescinded.
Given that context, it’s perhaps not surprising that Ribbon occasionally feels like a primal scream. The main character’s frustration mostly has to do with the pandemic, but you can also see Non’s own frustration bubbling up beneath the surface, as someone who’s simply wanted to work and has been stymied at every turn.
Ribbon (which Non directed, stars in, and also wrote the script for) takes us back to the early days of the pandemic, a time that feels both close and extremely far away. Itsuka (Non) is an art student whose university is temporarily shutting down due to the pandemic. In a lengthy opening scene, she lugs a large painting and multiple bags of art supplies home to her tiny apartment. Other students aren’t so fortunate—their art is too big to be taken home, and they have no space to work on it outside the school. The film follows Non and her friends and family as they reckon with the day-to-day frustrations and anxieties of the first weeks of the pandemic, and the larger question of where to find meaning when all your traditional sources of it have been cut off.
Non is a confident and creative director with an eye for detail that many a veteran would envy. The opening shots of the film—of mostly-empty art school classrooms, hallways, and piles of faceless mannequins accompanied by signage and announcements about protecting yourself from infection—have a sad, eerie quality. Throughout the film, actors also stand far apart from each other when they speak, which is appropriate for the time, but also underscores how disconnected and lonely everyone feels. Masks make this even worse, and there’s the weird dance of uncertainty that everyone seemed to be doing in the early days of the pandemic—wear a mask or don’t, open the window or close it, meet or don’t, go out or stay home, spray every surface repeatedly with hand sanitizer or don’t bother.
In its best moments, Ribbon reminded me of Cafe Lumiere, Hou Hsiao-hsien’s beautiful story of a woman wandering through life in Tokyo that was content to mostly just observe her in her surroundings (with the addition of stunning light and skilled sound editing). Like Hou, Non is great at finding beauty in mundane things—the light filtering in through the curtains of an apartment, lovingly prepared food, the abandoned hallways of a school. Though plenty of the scenes between Itsuka and her sister, parents, and classmates are charming, I would also just have been happy to watch the main character go about her daily life with minimal dialogue—cleaning (or usually not cleaning) her apartment, trying to find artistic inspiration, eating onigiri in the park.
The story occasionally takes a turn for the goofy that doesn’t quite work—the arrival of Itsuka’s parents and sister is announced with loud, 2001-style drumbeats, Itsuka’s father comes bearing a large pole to help maintain social distancing, and the conversations between these characters sometimes veer into soap-style melodrama. But I forgive this because there’s an authentic and relatable sense of pain and frustration that always comes through, like when Itsuka wonders what the point of her last four years of college have been, or whether the art she’s worked so hard on is really worth anything.
Movies about art can be made or broken by the quality of said art, and I’m happy to report that the art made for Ribbon is, for the most part, very good. Itsuka’s eventual source of creative inspiration produces a piece that’s deeply moving and beautiful to see. It’s a reminder of something that, in the midst of all manner of pandemic frustrations and genuine horrors, can be easy to forget—art is powerful, and sometimes the creation and consumption of art is the only thing that keeps us going. I imagine that’s as true for Non as it is for her protagonist.