Close-Up on Yui Kiyohara's "Our House"

Two pairs of women mysteriously seem to occupy the same house without ever seeing each other, in Yui Kiyohara's evocative feature debut.
Kelley Dong

Close-Up is a feature that spotlights films now playing on MUBI. Yui Kiyohara's Our House, which is receiving an exclusive global online premiere on MUBI, is showing from August 28 – September 26, 2019 in MUBI's Debuts series.

In Yui Kiyohara’s Our House, home is where the heart hides and where it haunts, refusing change and connection. Four women inhabit the two-storied house in question. There are those who want to leave and those who want to stay, but all are weighed down by an emotional strain: a widow with a new love and her still-grieving daughter, a working girl with shady business ties and a jobless one with no memory at all, who wishes to start anew. Kiyohara ties these twos together with a metaphysical strand, a slight revelation of a possibly cross-dimensional event: never do the tenants see the others; instead, they unknowingly live together at once, crowded by many and yet in total isolation.

Wooden grids across paper dividers and strings of doorway beads render the house a cage of comfort. The two habitations are distinguished by warm and cool tones. In the former, thirteen-year-old Seri (Nodoka Kawanishi) is attached to the home as an extension of her late father. The introduction of her mother Kiriko (Yuriko Yasuno)’s new boyfriend mortifies her; she writes the license plate number of his motorcycle on a slip of paper for safe measure. If the couple were to marry, mother and daughter would need to determine who would stay in the house, too small for all three. Seri would rather the other man never step foot into the premises. She writes in her diary: “Maybe no one will be home when I wake up tomorrow morning. I wish that would happen.” She cannot speak to her mother without hesitation behind each word uttered. Kiyohara places these characters apart at such far distance that saying nothing is easier than choosing the right words to declare and project across the room. Standing closer to the walls than to one another, both mother and daughter bury words unspoken into the property.

At possibly that same moment on a yacht out at sea, Toko (Mei Fujiwara) encounters Sana (Mariwo Osawa), who remembers only her name. She is invited to stay at the home. Sana plans to retrieve her lost memories, but Toko would rather she focus on staying and starting over, entirely from scratch. Though Sana looks for work at a coffee shop, the employer is unimpressed with her lack of awareness. But Sana is not the only blank slate. Surrounding Toko is also a quilt of incoherence, bits and pieces of strange circumstances and mannerisms traced back to an elusive job, a second one apart from her work at a nearby factory. She sews and mends large amounts of children’s clothing, and delivers packages in empty buildings in the dark. "Why do you live like this?" Sana asks. "So I won't be defeated by gravity," Toko replies.

Unlike Toko and Sana, Seri and Kiriko are linked by blood (the mahogany hued walls resembling a womb). The roof over their heads is of a prior obligation (to Seri’s father and Kiriko’s late husband) now threatened by the formation of a new family. Toko and Sana, however, share an unnatural connection, a crisp blue. In the other they see one who is also floundering empty-handed through day-to-day life, each with their own “baggage,” like the stuffed duffel bag Sana carries aboard the yacht or the mounds of cloth that Toko scatters about the house.

Yui Kiyohara, a graduate of Tokyo University of the Arts, is known to be the protégé of Kiyoshi Kurosawa, himself famous for the abstractions of space and time in his horror films. By comparison, one might deem Kiyohara more subdued in her approach to fear, hyper-fixating on the small shocks that seep into the mundane. Monotony itself is elevated as an absurdity. Kiyohara’s crisscrossing crosscuts repeat as if a looping pop song: Seri, Kiriko, Sana, Toko, then Seri again. But the boundaries drawn by these cuts are shadowed by the increasing overlaps between the two worlds. Soon, the women become each other’s ghosts. Seri discovers a hole in the wall; Toko suggests Sana must’ve poked a hole in her sleep. Sana hides a gift for Toko; Seri finds the box and opens it.  

When does the home as a physical space become the gendered space of the domestic? The immediate temptation regarding Our House is to assume that purely because the four women live together, Kiyohara is engaging with notions of women-led communal living or, even more pointedly, that the film praises such a space in and of itself. But even when surrounded by a mother or a daughter, or a new friend, the women of Our House find in themselves a gaping loneliness that the others (both and invisible) cannot satisfy, because they refuse to get any closer. Therefore, the film stands as a challenge to the fantasy of an ever-fulfilling matriarchy. Chores are still chores and they must be done; thoughts and feelings must be shared. There are no close-ups of food being prepared to suggest an inherent beauty in women cooking together. Seri’s mother might cook her a birthday feast or her favorite omelette rice, but Seri may never forgive Kiriko for replacing her father with a new man. Sana offers to cook for Toko, but Toko rejects her, insisting on eating her “usual meal.”

The only overt hostilities between the women are engendered by the introduction of men. Kiriko's boyfriend attends Seri's birthday party; distraught by his presence, she poisons his glass, a vengeful act directed towards him as an extension of her mother. But these bursts of honest anger also shatter the illusion that all is usually well, that everyone gets along to begin with. A man allured by Sana, Natsuki, intrudes upon her and Toko late at night. The confusion caused catalyzes a long-simmering confrontation regarding Toko's job. This, too, is interrupted, by a power outage. The outage has also extended to the other realm, where Seri hears loud noises, mistaking them for her dead father. The objects she throws towards the darkness enter through there, shattering on Toko and Sana's home. For once, without the light, every wall between every tenant fades away. The sense of shelter afforded by the house is lost, and all the women can do is reach out and hope someone else can hear or feel them. For stability, Toko and Sana hold each other as if meeting for the first time as something more than two tenants. The collision that knots Seri, Kiriko, Toko, and Sana's dimensions does not appease the unresolved threads of the mystery, instead making room for further intrusions from each world to to other. The possibility of further risk, implied within the film's final minutes, confirms that their past place of refuge is no longer. The phantoms must move on.

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