iSugio

Tamako in Moratorium – Review

by Miguel Douglas

@isugoi

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Being a former member of AKB48, arguably Japan’s most popular idol groups, will undoubtedly remain a facet of one’s character long after they have moved from one profession to another. Furthermore, being perhaps one of the defining members of the aforementioned idol group is a whole other element to take into consideration, as is certainly the case with Atsuko Maeda. While still a prominent figure within the music sphere, Maeda has over the course of several years developed a rather sizable foray into the world of acting, taking prominent lead roles in films such as Makoto Tanaka’s Drucker in the Dug-Out (2011), Hideo Nakata’s The Complex (2013), and Kiyoshi Kurosawa’s Seventh Code (2013). But while the legacy of her musical career is still ever present, her aspirations to become a prominent actress continues in Nobuhiro Yamashita’s Tamako in Moratorium, although it is a film whose forbearing atmosphere unfortunately restricts Maeda’s acting abilities more often than it does not.

Based on a series of short film segments that were shown on Japan’s Music On TV! channel, Tamako in Moratorium follows recent college graduate Tamako, played here by Maeda, through four seasons of her life. Her humdrum daily experiences are highlighted, as Tamako lazily lives day to day without any motivation to do mature activities such as applying for a job. Her parents are separated and she lives with her father Yoshitsugu, played here by Suon Kan. Yoshitsugu is somewhat complacent with Tamako living at home, but still wants more for her and bides his time running a sporting gear store to support the family, continuing to push for Tamako’s independence.

From taking a simple glance at the title of the film, Tamako in Moratorium could either be interpreted as a testament towards the utter complacency that some individuals experience after graduating from college, apprehensive towards the prospect of entering the job market and becoming full fledged “adults”, or it can simply be a tale of one young woman’s reluctancy to expand outside her boundaries. Or perhaps it is a little bit of both. Regardless of which direction it is seemingly subscribing to, Tamako in Moratorium is equally a film which finds Yamashita grappling to find his grounding amidst writer Kosuke Mukai’s overly facile and rather unremarkable telling of a young woman’s desire to essentially do absolutely nothing with her life.

One of the main strengths of any character study, and is undoubtedly the intention in this film, is that it relies primarily on producing an interesting character in which we, as the viewers, can derive some understanding as to why they act the way they do. In Tamako’s case, it is feeling shiftless regarding life itself and easily dismissing any attempts to rectify her current predicament. The issue with Tamako in Moratorium is that it unsuccessfully attempts to fulfill this criteria, with Tamako being viewed as simply existing as is without much contribution applied towards revealing to us why she is this way, or for that matter, providing very little backstory to even attempt to do so.

This is no to say that the film does not attempt to reveal some facets of Tamako perplexing personality and life. There are several moments within the film where we begin to somewhat understand her, such as when she angrily pouts at a woman in a magazine after getting her haircut because it doesn’t look like her own hair, or when she attempts to bring ruin to her father’s chances with a potential love interest, but these are not really explored to the capacity of truly defining her as a fully realized character. When she surprisingly, and quite spontaneously, decides to finally search for work, the film refuses to explore it outside of just a fluttering idea of her’s, never amounting to very much besides it eventually leading into an argument with her father. In many respects, many of her actions portray her as simply being a mean, immature, and spoiled individual who just wants to remain interdependent the rest of her life. Maeda’s stoic performance does not help here as well, as her range of acting as viewed in her other films is severely limited. One would like to have seen more emotion given her character’s circumstances, but alas it does not come to fruition and we find Tamako more often appearing as a downtrodden individual.

It is this sense of tedious pessimism that permeates the entire film, and where both Yamashita and Mukai seem to struggle with developing Tamako as a lead character we should be interesting in learning more about. The pacing of the film also remains an issue, as showcasing the most mundane actions by Tamako is seemingly the highest priority of Yamashita. Whether this is simply displaying Tamako eating, reading manga, or laying around her home, Yamashita is fixated on bringing forth a rather tireless view into her uneventful lifestyle, easing us into a lethargic viewing experience. Hypothetically, this lackluster approach could have ultimately stemmed from the fact that the premise of the film originated from a short collection of films that were shown on television, in which there probably was not too much character development to begin with, but that does not excuse the film’s sluggish pacing coupled with a continued absence of aforementioned character development. Perhaps the strongest performance is viewed in Suon Kan as Tamako’s father, portraying an individual who wants his daughter to grow up but does not completely have the courage to tell her to do so, and it is he who enlivens the minute familial dilemma that is unevenly visible throughout the film.

On a visceral level though, the film succeeds in numerous ways in translating Tamako’s lifestyle to us as viewers. Yamashita approaches shooting the film in an almost claustrophobic manner with scenes confined to primarily several key locations in Tamako’s life, which eases us into the rather small world that encompasses her daily existence. Not to suggest that the film entraps us into her extremely limited worldview, but it easily conveys the homey and comfortable environment in which Tamako resides in, unwilling to escape it or too keen to adventure outside of it.

But perhaps Tamako in Moratorium is truly about exploring the social detriment of Japan’s NEET’s (and acronym for “Not in education, employment, or training”). Or perhaps it is about a really unpleasant individual who simply does not want to enter adulthood. Or perhaps it is something entirely else. We really can not tell due to some questionable approaches the film takes, which is unfortunate considering that there is a lot of material that could have easily been expressed more effectively here, elevating the film to an area of appreciable social commentary. Instead Tamako in Moratorium appears increasingly nihilistic in scope than one thinks it intended to be, in the end being a viewed as a missed opportunity for both Maeda’s ability as an actress as well as the distinct challenges of entering into the workforce – ultimately adulthood – after college.

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Author: Miguel Douglas

As an avid viewer of both Japanese animation and cinema for more than a decade now, Miguel is primarily concerned with establishing a critical look into both mediums as legitimate forms of artistic, cultural, and societal understanding. Never one to simply look at a film or series based solely on superficiality, Miguel has dedicated himself towards bringing awareness to Asian entertainment and its various facets.

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