Tamako in Moratorium is a gently probing comedy which sees director Nabuhiro Yamashita, best known for his ‘slacker’ movies, offer his audience yet an another incarnation of his archetypal protagonist: the directionless, uncomfortable, and underachieving youth.
Tamako is an often-monosyllabic 23 year old who has returned home from college to live with her single father and whose singular defining quality is how lazy she is. With Atsuko Maeda in the role, we are introduced to her as she naps and slouches her way through life after college, rarely stirring beyond the house. In the early stages of the film, her greatest exertions come as her aimlessness threatens to exceed her inertia: in one scene she distractedly switches her attentions and her grasp between the TV remote, her phone, her bowl and her chopsticks, and in another she rises from the lounge-room floor only to settle into reading manga on the toilet instead, leaving her father to switch off the television and take away her discarded food. The relationship between Tamako and her father is one of the strongest elements of the film: their interactions have an authenticity and recognisability that lends itself to solid comedy, but also to a handful of unexpectedly touching moments.
Maeda’s performance as Tamako is perfectly suited to Yamashita’s style, which uses various forms of space and clutter – dialogic, visual, aural – with great deliberation. The sparing dialogue is accentuated by pauses in delivery and Yamashita often lets silence gape over a scene, exposing its emotional nuance. The camerawork is steady and simple, calmly lingering on the body language of the characters and on Tamako especially, who – despite the title – is rarely still. Visibly shifting her body weight, constantly moving her gaze, sloping her shoulders, slumping hard, blinking slow and stepping heavy, Maeda embodies an underlying and relatable discomfort that provides a subtly sharp edge to the film.
Again deploying space or a lack thereof, for much of the film Yamashita keeps us inside and cramped, obstructed framing and shallow focus heightening the sense of claustrophobia. The partial alleviation of this in both setting and cinematography as the film progresses is accompanied by a slow, awkward expansion of Tamako’s relationships. There are a number of deeply amusing moments, particularly as she grapples with the possibility of her father having a girlfriend, and with her own insecurity and wobbly ambition.
In one scene that deserves greater emphasis than it gets, after gently and fruitlessly nagging her to get a job Tamako’s father finds her application to be part of a Japanese ‘idol’ pop group. It’s a wry and rather meta joke – Atsuko Maeda is already hugely famous in Japan as a member of such a band, AKB48 – and also a lost opportunity for greater poignancy in the film. However, in context Yamashita’s neglect in exploring Tamako’s glossy dream can easily be forgiven. His disregard for this fantasy seems to be part of a wider, and deeply remarkable, disinterest in Tamako’s sexuality or femininity. In an earlier interview, Yamashita had joked that he makes films about lazy girls because he likes lazy girls – “it might be my fetish,” – and I went into the cinema ready to resent him for it. By the time I came out, I was willing to give him the benefit of the doubt on a dodgy joke.
Though Tamako is infantilised at times, she is never objectified. She is not rescued from her lonely stagnation by a love interest, nor redeemed in a display of romantic desire. Her sullen, stubborn laziness and her endearingly off-beat demeanour are never unnecessarily gendered, and the film is refreshingly unmarred by the male gaze. It’s all to the credit of Yamashita. Interestingly, in another interview, Yamashita said he makes movies about slackers because he is one, and he identifies himself with his protagonists – which is a much more palatable rationale, and perhaps the one that we can see in Tamako in Moratorium
That said, by the time we’re an hour deep and the film has unfolded the emotional promise of its characters, Tamako’s churlishness does begin to rub a little, not only on her patient, long-suffering father but also on the audience. The character’s heavy physicality is evocative and amusing throughout most of the film, but by the end it feels exaggerated. However if Maeda overacts here, it seems intentional: it reads as faithful to the protagonist’s obstinacy. Likewise, the film refuses to relent and soften Tamako, and while it may rub a little the work is better for it. Because although the characters are well crafted, the jokes are funny, and the intimacy feels genuine, without the lethargy and sullenness to weigh it down Tamako in Moratorium might have been light enough to float away.
Screening Sat 14 June, 12.45PM