Told from the perspective of the main female protagonist as she deals with work and relationships, “Pumpkin and Mayonnaise” is a fantastic drama about what happens when couples find their lives pulled in different directions. Director Masanori Tominaga crafts a simple yet believable story that deals with a number of social issues affecting modern people, with the pressures of money, time, and even love, being a constant theme.

Pumpkin and Mayonnaise is screening at Nippon Connection

Tsuchida (Asami Usuda) is living with her long-term boyfriend Seiichi (Taiga) who is struggling to make ends meet as a singer-songwriter. In order to help him, Tsuchida begins work as a hostess, a job where she can earn good money by drinking with men in a somewhat sexualized environment. When one of the men tells her she can make even more money by coming with him to his hotel, she decides to take the risk. Once they are alone, the man asks her to change into a school swimsuit, putting increasing demands on her, and treating her as an escort. When Seiichi discovers the money she has hidden, he argues with her causing a rift in their relationship. Despite her wanting to help him with the money, he cannot forgive her and the two soon find themselves living separate lives, despite being forced to co-habit. Later at a bar, Tsuchida meets an old friend Hagio (Joe Odagiri). The two still have feelings for each other and fall into an affair.

Tsuchida’s desperate search for affection contrasts with Seiichi’s desire to succeed as a creative while not wishing for attention. The film follows her as she attempts to navigate a path between her live-in ex-boyfriend and this handsome admirer.

“Pumpkin and Mayonnaise” is based on a manga by Kiriko Nananan with a screenplay by director Masanori Tominaga. Tominaga does a great job of creating a truly gripping drama by stripping back the story to its essentials. A small cast and short run time help the film in making every scene a fundamental step on the journey and the audience is always left wanting to know where the characters will go next. It spends most of its time with character building moments between Tsuchida and the two men in her life. It is very much a story told from her perspective and comments on the difficulties faced by women in society, without ever patronizing the audience with a specific message. Tsuchida is far from a helpless victim, perfectly capable of making her own decisions, but we see time and again she is forced into impossible situations where every path seems to be wrong. The cinematography by Yuta Tsukinaga does a great job of capturing the rather disorderly lives of the protagonists and the environs of the city. Along with some great set decoration we are taken inside the clubs, bars and apartments in a way that brings them to life. The music will occasionally fall silent, giving the audience a chance to consider the momentous decisions that Tsuchida is making.

Asami Usuda does an incredible job in the lead role as Tsuchida. Although she appears uncomfortable and nervous in the earlier scenes, her inner strength shines through, as she is doing what she must for the man she loves. She is given plenty of moments to show her range as she moves from the shy trainee hostess to a loving girlfriend, confidently flirtatious with Hagio, and emotionally devastated when events begin to unravel. Taiga is endearing as Seiichi. Although he is the cause of Tsuchida’s sufferings in some sense, we still have sympathy for him. It is clear that he is well-meaning and the audiences’ affections are torn between him and Tsuchida. Joe Odagiri’s Hagio is a charismatic counter-point to Seiichi, fulfilling the loving role that our main character needs. All of the actors are believable and their dilemma is one in which the morality is grey. None of them are wrong, only forced into this situation by circumstance.

“Pumpkin and Mayonnaise” is well written, creating three likable if flawed individuals and exploring the interplay between them and the society they are in. By the end of the film, you feel as though you understand each of them quite thoroughly and at around 90 minutes it is the perfect length for this kind of drama. The themes that it highlights, such as dishonesty in a relationship and the darker themes of exploitation of women, are subtle and a natural fit for the story. Rather than pushing its own message, it presents everything without comment and allows the audience to decide on the rights and wrongs of the characters’ actions. By focusing on the characters in this way, it makes the drama more powerful.