If this week has been treating you poorly and you feel that you have finally earned yourself a break, make good use of your Netflix subscription and watch “Call me Chihiro.” If you are looking to indulge yourself in a slice-of-life story, watch “Call me Chihiro.” It is the perfect medicinal dose that you would require to cure your urban malady of loneliness. Sex work is the world’s oldest profession, and I have often wondered what makes an immoral professional like the one mentioned before passing the test of time.
The film answers my question without even trying to make a big fuss about it. Sex workers have probably been the world’s first therapists. The world’s judgmental views about sex workers do not leave room for them to hold judgments about the rest of the world. This film tells the story of a former sex worker who now works at a bento shop. It is a Japanese film, but once you overcome the barrier of the one-inch subtitle at the bottom of your screen, you are watching a human story that is sure to touch your soul. Nothing much really happens in the film.
Adapted from the manga “Chihiro-son,” Rikiya Imaizumi’s film is like poetry in motion. It is very difficult, to sum up, a plot that doesn’t necessarily move from point A to point B. This, in turn makes the film more realistic, and we can easily categorize it as a slice-of-life drama about a former sex worker who treats everyone she meets with immaculate empathy and strives to make their lives better. My training in English literature wires my brain to analogize her character and attitude towards life and people to Bertolt Brecht’s Shen Te from his famous play “The Good Person of Szechwan.”
Chihiro is a collector of lonely souls who feel detached from their friends and family. At one point, the film feels like a meditation on the idea of a family asking the poignant question about an individual’s right of choosing their own family, their own tribe. We are born in a house with a name that we have no control over, but Imaizumi shows us that in life, as we grow older, the choice of people we want to get associated with becomes our voluntary decision. We can attack Chihiro for her savior complex, but at the end of the day, we have to realize that her collection of “wounded birds” (as seen in the little kids Makoto, Okaji, Betchin, the homeless man, etc.) is either her desperate attempt to build her own tribe or just a defense mechanism enabling her survival.
The picturesque seaside Japanese town, bright neon lights of cabaret bars and massage parlors, sidewalks and guardrails drenched in torrential Japanese rain, and appetizing bento boxes leave you yearning for more. The subtle naturalistic performances by the actors profess a sense of verisimilitude that will oblige you to believe that these characters are definitely there, waiting for you to welcome you into their tribe in some quaint little fishing town in Japan. So, without any more delay, let us dive into the catalog of characters and find out who plays what.
Kasumi Arimura As Chihiro
The name Chihiro reminds me of the little girl in Hayao Miyazaki’s “Spirited Away” who undertakes menial jobs in order to free her parents from a curse so that they can go back to being a family. But Chihiro in this film does not want to return to her own family. In fact when her brothers delivers the news of their mother’s death Chihiro chooses to skip her funeral. We are left guessing if her former status of being a sex worker had anything to do with her current estrangement with her family. Chihiro, a former sex worker, now works at a bento shop. A lively young woman with an effervescent spirit who becomes a child with the children and goes down to pet a stray cat, it is obvious that she cannot be streamlined as an immoral woman. In the course of the film Chihiro saves a homeless old man who was being harassed by a group of boys because of his foul smell. She takes the old man home, gives him a bath and shares her food with him. This stands as testimony to Chihiro’s kindness.
Unfortunately, just after a few scenes in the film Chihiro finds the old man dead in one of the loneliest spots in town. She buries him with all due respect. Her actions highlight that behind the happy go lucky façade Chihiro hides the pain of loneliness. She adopts friends on the lonely journey. She connects with a highschooler Okaji feels out of place with her family and friends, then there is a little boy named Makoto whose single mother sometimes struggles to look after him aptly. She connects with another high school student called Betchin who shares her enthusiasm and love for manga. Basil, a prostitute friend of Chihiro, complains about Chihiro’s unattached attitude. But again, this can be treated as a defense tactic on her part to save herself from the world of takers. Chihiro’s job as a sex worker taught her to stop asking questions – for her people had no backstory and every moment can be a tabula rasa, it is a game of the present as the future holds no importance for the likes of her. Eventually we learn that Chihiro is the pseudonym for Aya Furasawa and Aya’s kindness for every broken thing in the world is actually her way of repaying the kindness a prostitute named Chihiro had shown to little Aya.
Kasumi Arimura is a pleasure to watch as she portrays the bubbly personality of Chihiro on screen while also succeeding at arresting the loneliness of her soul in her eyes. Arimura is best known for her work in films like “We Made a Beautiful,” “Hiyokko,” “Flying Colors,” etc.
Hana Toyshima As Okaji
Okaji is a fan of Chihiro. At first, she seemed obsessed with her. Okaji feels out of place and lonely with her family and friends. Though her problems seem to be the basic tantrums of a teenager, it is the uptightness and patriarchal outlook of her father that don’t really allow her to be one with her family. She finds her family in the annoying little Makoto, Chihiro and Bechin. Hana Toyshima is popular because of her TV series like “Tokumei Sentai Go-Busters,” “Minato shoji koin randori,” and “Tokai no Tomu & Soya.”
Tetta Shimada As Makoto
Makoto is a notorious young boy who is introduced to us in the film while playing a prank on Chihiro. It turns out to be an ugly encounter, with the little boy ending up stabbing Chihiro with the needle of his compass. Chihiro does not give him capital punishment but rather takes him to her bento shop and provides him with food. Her kindness wins Makoto over, making him a naughty but civil young boy.
This film seems to be an early outing for Tetta Shimada, who appeared in the 2022 film “Love Life.”
Jun Fubuki As Tae
Tae is the wife of the owner of Nokonoko Bento Shop. When Bito (played by Mitsuru Hirata) ‘s wife falls ill and loses her sight, Chihiro takes over. She regularly visits Tae in the hospital. She was impressed with Tae’s kindness the first time they met at the bento shop. Chihiro expresses in one scene that she would have loved if Tae would have been her real mother. Tae is intuitive, and she senses Chihiro’s loneliness before any of the other members of the adopted family even notice the emptiness in Chihiro’s eyes.
Jun Fubuk is a veteran actress known for her roles in films like “Nowhere Man,” “Tales from Earthsea,” and “Coquille.” She has even lent her voice to Ryoko Matsuzaki “From Up on Poppy Hill.”
“Call me Chihiro” is an earnest attempt to show that we are truly lonely individuals even when we are amidst a crowd of thousands of people. In fact, we can actually apply Chihiro’s belief to feel a little less lonely. Her theory says that we are probably all aliens from different planets, and this in turn prevents us from understanding each other. But there are people from our own planets too with whom even unseasoned food would taste heavenly. The film is now streaming on Netflix.