Directed by Shinji Imaoka, 2004, 65 mins. Starring Yumika Hayashi, Mutsuo Yoshioka, Lemon Hanazawa, Ryo Kurihara and Kiyomi Ito.
Made in 2004 by Shinji Imaoka, Lunch Box is, quite simply, a rather surreal, weird, dark-hued and sad pink film. However, as with most pink films, if you came here expecting anything like the Western equivalent of the soft porn skin flick, you've definitely come to the wrong place.
In this movie, the sex scenes are tenderly observed as in a romanporno (the genre-word for a 'romantic porno' film), coy in places but no less effective for that. However, unlike in Western softcore movies, the sex in this movie is not necessarily the whole point. Indeed, most Japanese sex filmmaking of this calibre tries to elevate itself into the arthouse genre, and this movie is no exception. Throughout, there's a subtle social commentary in the subtext about the place of women in Japanese society, and Lunch Box feels at times like the director is almost delivering a chauvinist-conservative apology, by using the age-old excuse that all a woman really wants to do is stay at home, pleasing her man in the bedroom and the kitchen.
Significantly, though, it's told from a woman's point of view here; as the main female character controls every aspect of her partner's wellbeing and happiness, her position is initially presented as a position of power, but power which is slowly eroded due to her passive and vulnerable place in society, until she has nothing left.
Despite the central character's apparent age (which is given in the synopsis on the DVD box as 35 years old), Aiko, the pivotal role in this movie and around whom which all events unfold, is depicted as being rather childlike, submissive, weak-willed and possibly a little educationally subnormal, not to mention mute, which would suggest that she's continually being exploited by the male characters in the movie.
Sadly, though, it's not just the male characters who do so. Aiko is highly susceptible and defenceless in every way, which should inspire sympathy in the viewer, but due to her slightly irritating manner, lack of variety of even facial expressions (mainly pop-eyed staring and making 'cute' pouty mouths) and complete dearth of any other kind of communication skills, it's nigh on impossible to feel sorry for her in any way.
In the main, the acting is competent enough, nothing Oscar-worthy, although personally I found Yumika Hayashi's portrayal of Aiko a bit lacking: I felt that with a bit more in the way of body- and facial-expressiveness, perhaps a little more might have been communicated about who she actually is as a person, rather than just an oddball with a long list of mental problems. Likewise, the dialogue is just there, nothing to complain about but nothing to rave about.
To my mind, the look of the film is where Lunch Box comes up a bit short. It's all fairly unappealing to look at until pretty much the last quarter of an hour, where we get a taste of what it could have looked like with some hefty money behind it, as the beach location shots used near the end are quite lovely and atmospheric. Sadly, what we mostly get to see for the other 55 minutes is the grotty inside of Aiko's box-like apartment, and a rather drab office. There are far too many indoors-location shots, which give a slight feeling of claustrophobia, and as for special effects – well, if you're looking for any here, forget it. They're not necessarily vital to this movie as it is, after all, a human drama with only a few touches of the hallucinatory and supernatural.
That said, I do feel that images and symbols of Aiko's supposed mental decline are seriously lacking: the only one there is, a talking bowling ball, is clearly a man's bald head, painted navy blue. No CGI here, just good old-fashioned makeup. And it's rather hard to take it seriously, except in one instance where it was, for your humble reviewer, rather actively creepy. This lack of sophistication would at least suggest that the budget was probably zero for this production: it could have been a much richer experience had a little cash been spent on expanding the theme in a visual medium.
Another interesting point is that, like Raigyo, there is absolutely no music featured whatsoever. Again, whether that's due to budget limitations or the director not wishing to lead his audience's emotions through the use of a soundtrack and allow the characters to speak for themselves, is still anyone's guess. Problem is, though, that in depicting characters so alien from mainstream society, then not even allowing the central character a voice, a dialogue, a connection to the viewer, it's almost impossible to become emotionally involved with the people concerned - which we're being asked to do.
The opening scene of the movie is highly significant – and indeed, the very first shot of the movie: it depicts the main female protagonist, Aiko, chomping her lunch out of a red plastic lunch box. For some reason which is never explained, she is mute; a 35-year-old bowling alley worker who has a giant crush on a young, handsome, moped-riding mailman named Yoshio. She forces him to become involved with her by knocking down his bike and stealing the post, much like a 12-year-old might try to engage someone's romantic interest.
Her only interest - other than stuffing her face and making cow-eyes at Postie - is bowling, which is lucky, since that's what she does as a job. However, she is having an on-off affair with her boss at the alley, who is addicted to having sex with her in his car, and occasionally at her apartment too. She seems unwilling to participate any longer: she certainly doesn't seem overly interested in him, but since sex is one of her major obsessions, it would appear that she'll take whatever she can get.
Not only is she an obsessive character, fixated with sex, food and bowling, she's also quite stark raving bonkers. One night after having sex with her boss in his car, when she returns home to her apartment, she hears a voice coming from one of her bowling balls, looks up and lo and behold, she sees that one of them no longer looks like a bowling ball but rather like someone's head, and it's talking to her! When she gets up close to it, though, it just looks like a normal bowling ball again, so she dismisses it as a random trick her mind is playing on her.
Later on, when the post-office workers go out together, one of his female co-workers starts to try to seduce Yoshio. But rather than sleep with her, he goes to seek out Aiko instead, turning up at her apartment, and finally Aiko gets her heart's desire, dragging him indoors physically and having sex with him.
Not only that, but she tries to combine two of her obsessions, playing out some kind of wifely fantasy, cooking the most amazing, delicious-looking and decorative box-lunches for him, wrapping them up beautifully and bringing them to him in some kind of devotional way. (Is this a comment on how Japanese women in their sociological culture are not merely still treated by men but also observe themselves, still in their old-fashioned roles as wife/whore? Or is it merely a kind of protective bribe, to guard against her own vulnerability, heightened by her mute status, and insecurity?)
Certainly his amorous co-worker sees this devotional offering as the handiwork of a girlfriend, at the very least. He denies it, and tells her the lunches are made by his mom. This little scene shows Yoshio in an interesting light: he's absolutely passive and submissive to the females dominating his life - he couldn't say no to Aiko, who virtually dragged him off the street for sex; he couldn't say no to his mom, who wanted him back early from work; and he can't even say no when his pushy co-worker tries to seduce him.
Aiko rushes out of work early to run all the way back to her apartment and cook dinner for Yoshio. Astonishingly though, he tells her - after she's prepared an enormous lovingly-prepared fresh feast for him - that it's a drag for him to have to wash the lunch box out every day, so she mustn't make him any more lunches. He also tells her it's embarrassing for him to be the only one with a packed lunch. She acquiesces, but still goes ahead and makes one for him anyway. It's almost a proprietary gesture: as the female co-worker identified Aiko as a girlfriend, that's how she acts, and how she's presenting herself. By giving Yoshio lunches, it's almost like her telling the other women in the office to back off as Yoshio has someone devoted enough to make lunch boxes for him every day.
However, due to the ridiculous politics that take place in every office that ever there was in the world, ever, this only serves to isolate Yoshio from the 'team' - and he feels uncomfortable and pained about it. After all, that old favourite Japanese saying 'the nail that sticks up will be hammered down', signifying that individuality, especially in the workplace where the team ethic is everything, is unwelcome and will not be tolerated. In a way, Aiko's isolation and divorce from mainstream society is rubbing off on him, and he seems to feel it. His co-workers are abandoning him and treating him with suspicion, as they do to Aiko herself.
Later, it becomes quite apparent that Yoshio, whilst not as emotionally involved with Aiko as she is with him, is not only 'attached' enough to take money from Aiko, but evidently not enough to stay faithful to her: his irritatingly pushy female co-worker finally gets her own way, rather uncomfortably, standing on top of a desk, not an ideal place to consummate a relationship, but there. ;-)
Aiko is losing her love to her rival, who is younger, prettier, not so possessive, and less insane to boot, and when she shows up with yet another lunch box, her boyfriend dumps her outright for his other woman.
And now the situation, once so stable and comfortable for all concerned, is disintegrating around her: she's stalking her ex, and finally getting up the courage to tell her boss's wife about having an affair with him. What will happen to poor Aiko? Will she be able to rebuild the broken shards of her former existence into a new life, and move forward? Or will she get her act together and take revenge against those who have crushed her spirit and annihilated her world?
Unlike Nami, the indomitable heroine who refuses to be destroyed by the thoughtless and selfish actions of men in Nikkatsu's Angel Guts series of pink eiga, Aiko seems to just crumble under pressure, to concede, and to keep on conceding until things take an ugly turn for the worse. This is probably because she is so cut off from the flow of mainstream society: not only unable to express herself except in childlike, simplistic gestures, but also acting and thinking like a child as well as expressing like one.
It's fairly evident that her only connection to society is partly through her unfaithful lover, and partly through her love of bowling. Yoshio is her lifeline, her obsession, the sum total of her thoughts and actions, her lover and her son-figure. Her obsession with bowling – the only thing she's good at, other than cooking - is so deeply felt it is akin to a religion: she even has a kind of weird altar arrangement on which her favourite chatty bowling ball rests on a velvet cushion, like a Shinto shrine. So when he leaves her, and she loses her job, what becomes of her? There is nothing left in life for her. The ending of the movie is pretty predictable, yes, but no less depressing and bleak for all that.
In truth, I also felt, from a purely subjective point of view, that somehow that made her exploitation that much worse - maybe this was entirely the point Imaoka wished to make, that by not having her turn into a bunny-boiler mid-movie, we could have more sympathy with her. However, by creating such a marginalised and distanced character as the mute and passive Aiko, it would be almost impossible to feel anything other than a kind of condescending pity for her.
All in all, Lunch Box is a highly odd piece of cinema: one which seems to have a rather mixed concept of what audience it's trying to appeal to. It's certainly not a bad film at all; as far as the sex scenes go, they're realistically done, sensually handled and not too explicit, which suits their romanporno style. As an art movie, it deals with dark motifs of alienation, lunacy and isolation, but only in a very lightweight way and in no real depth. But whilst not as intellectual, visually pretty or mystical as Raigyo, or as strangely uplifting and innovatory as Angel Guts: Red Vertigo, Lunch Box is still light years ahead of any soft porn fluffy nonsense being made in the West, and definitely well worth a look.
Snowblood Apple Rating for this
Entertainment Value: 6/10
Talking Bowling Balls: 1
Lunch Boxes: yum!/10
Visuals: nice scenes at the end - saved the best till last, maybe? ;-)
Buckets of Tomato Ketchup: one medium-sized Eezy-Squeezy bottle
Films in a Similar Style: Raigyo, Angel Guts: Red Dizziness, Naked Blood
*** Highly unusual and worth a look ***
This film is released by Salvation Films.
Snowblood Apple Filmographies
http://www.salvation-films.com - Lunch Box is available direct on Region 0 from Salvation Films, who very kindly provided us with the screener copy used for this review
http://cultcuts.net/reviewsmovies/l/lunchbox.htm - an excellent review by Heather Drain at cultcuts.net
http://www.raindance.co.uk/festival/programme/features/wayouteast/lunchbox/ - A short paragraph on pink film, with some background information about Shinji Imaoka