Sometimes the best fever dreams are the ones that leave you hanging in disbelief, dangling off a precipice as one hand tries to clamber to something firm and familiar. They have the tendency to tease and tease until they explode with kaleidoscopic intensity. Occasionally they spell everything out to you with barely a moment of hesitation and become completely enveloped in their symbolism; their crazed detachment from reality, however, becomes too inviting to be phased by this. Enter the strange microcosm of Takeshi Kushida’s “Woman of the Photographs”, as a mild-mannered voyage of self-projection, self-image, and self-worth becomes unsettlingly unhinged to the point of no return.
Kai (Seinendan Company’s Hideki Nagai as a brilliantly understated blank canvas) is a creature of habit. When he’s not retouching the pictures of insecure women for matchmaking services, he tends to his pet praying mantis, eats whilst listening to a concise array of music, and engages in insect photography. That is until the free-spirited model Kyoko (professional ballet dancer Itsuki Otaki) literally falls into his life. Sustaining a remarkably visible scar emblazoned across her chest, she is taken in by the silent Kai and asks him to remove this feature from her daily photos, worried it will affect her ‘likes’ and ‘followers’. When she suddenly decides to leave the scar unairbrushed after meeting Kai’s regular client Hisako (Toki Koinuma) not only does her social media influence balloon but her obsession with this this spirals out of control, headed towards a climactic sexual awakening neither her nor Kai can prevent.
Part visual drama, part body horror, part delirium, “Woman of the Photographs” stands out as an oddball entity on the cusp of self-discovery, unravelling its own truths one moment at a time. It’s meandering around the subject matter – effectively that of truth and deception, of how we see ourselves versus how we wish to be perceived by others – might initially come off as unbelievable but this is to be shrugged off due to ignorance. The hard fact is objectification especially of women and the commodification of “beauty” still slithers through the cracks of an aggressively shallow culture of images and this feeds into Kyoko’s own delusions: she watches in horror as Kai continues to alter Hisako’s digital image, being told that photo will become her true self and that “we can only love ourselves through others eyes”.
Ironically, no matter how critical Kyoko – who provides the leading voice throughout Kushida’s film – is of everything every woman tells her, she still struggles to break free herself. Indulging in the surge of attention her new photos attracts, she fetishizes and “modifies” her wound in an act of self-exploitation to the point her photos are deemed unsuitable by unseen decision-makers. Through her eyes, Kai’s silence (itself a harbinger of the lack of power men really hold over women’s bodies), and the dizzying spectrum of camera clicks gradually plunging into visceral dysphoria, we are left with a troubling message as haunting (and as perplexing) as Kyoko’s hallucinatory descent.
And hallucinatory it certainly becomes. After stringing us along to the halfway mark with typical indie quirkiness “Woman of the Photographs” decides – as instantly as Kyoko does – to change pace. Yu Oishi does a grand job at capturing not just the unease but the ecstasy of two leads awakening; couple with Atsushi Gaudi Yamamoto’s dreamlike editing we’re never certain what we are watching is real or imaginary. Whilst special mention has to be given to Yoshihiro Nishimura’s special effects – itself bringing an otherworldly nightmarish quality to the film – it is Masahiro Yui’s catatonic and inherently goosebump-inducing sound design which truly pushes the film over its edge. When combined, the fine line between reality and fantasy no longer seem relevant, leaving you to pick up its truths as it destabilises entirely.
Concocting such a tale of sexual expression and body positivity has been seen time and time again, but in its execution “Woman of the Photographs” splits from the pack. Its complete disregard for any rules other than its own prevents it from becoming a preachy mess released several years too late; instead it embraces the weirdness it inhabits and enjoys its own journey perhaps a little too much. At times it isn’t the most invigorating film to see but its well-crafted compositive exterior has such sights to show you, not out of enjoyment but out of necessity. And at the centre of all this are Kai and Kyoko, who want nothing more than to get on with business as usual but become swept up in the cards dealt to them. It doesn’t add much to the grander contextual dialogue but, like some messy car crash, once you watch Kai open his store during those first few shots you simply cannot turn away.