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  • Writer's pictureRobin Syversen


Iwai Amplifies Silent Cries From the Cracks of Japanese Society

Director: Shunji Iwai

Cast: Aina the End, Suzu Hirose, Hokuto Matsumura, Haru Kuroki

Related films: All About Lily Chou-Chou, April Story, Hana and Alice, Swallowtail Butterfly

Studio: Rockwell Eyes Inc.

Year: 2023

Verdict: 5/6

Kyrie unfolds as a three-hour sonnet about misplaced identities and trauma in a society geared towards conformity and integration. Here, we meet the protagonist, Kyrie, and her influential ally, Ikko, two outsiders who struggle to find their footing in life.

In 2023, Kyrie began its Asian festival circuit, initially confounding and exasperating unsuspecting audiences. However, while the film's non-linear storytelling may seem perplexing at first, it eventually coalesces into an experience on par with Iwai's most ambitious works.

Kyrie will be screened at the Nippon Connection Film Festival in Germany in May 2024. From us at Japanese Cinema Archives, it’s a highly recommended watch. The film’s atmosphere harkens back to our Iwai favorites, All About Lily Chou-Chou and Swallowtail Butterfly, while also speaking volumes about the struggles at the fringes of Japanese society.


Introducing Kyrie in Relation to Iwai’s Filmography

Shunji Iwai never shied away from challenging his audience, which may explain why he hasn't received as much international recognition as fellow Japanese filmmakers like Hirokazu Kore-eda or Kiyoshi Kurosawa. Yet, it's this same boldness that distinguishes him from his peers in Japan.

For instance, Iwai explores themes similar to those found in Kore-eda’s Shoplifters (2018), especially his focus on societal outsiders. However, his cinematic approach tends to resonate more with audiences in Japan, Korea, and China than with those in Europe and America.

This could be due to his chosen topics, unique filmmaking style, or the complex characters he portrays, which might be harder for international audiences to wrap their heads around. Nonetheless, the impact of his films, such as All About Lily Chou-Chou and Kyrie, rivals that of Wong Kar-wai’s Chungking Express (1994) and In the Mood for Love (2000).

"Movies, for me, provide a very intimate communication between each individual and myself."

Shunji Iwai – Asian Movie Pulse Interview

Iwai's approach is marked by poetic narrative styles, detailed character development, and an exceptional ability to capture the zeitgeist of Japan's younger generations. He often adopts a lyrical, almost dreamlike approach to cinematography, allowing the visual elements of his films to speak as powerfully as the dialogue.

Kyrie represents a natural progression in Iwai’s career. Once more, he features a young female pop artist, similar to his past work in Love Letter with Miho Nakayama and Swallowtail Butterfly with Chara. In Kyrie, the lead is portrayed by Aina the End, a former member of the idol group BiSH.

Like many of Iwai’s characters, she confronts issues of personal and cultural identity and existential uncertainty in the modern world. Kyrie integrates the aesthetic and philosophical motifs that Iwai has developed over his career, highlighting his evolution as a filmmaker and his acute sensitivity to the human condition.

Piecing Together a Broken Soul - Kyrie Synopsis

Kyrie unfolds in a fragmented, non-linear manner, exploring the protagonist’s journey from a young homeless girl named Luca Kozuka to her transformation into Kyrie through a friendship forged with Maori. This renewal of herself is a direct consequence of the 2011 Tohoku earthquake, during which Luca lost her older sister, Kyrie.

Early in the film, viewers also get a glimpse into Maori’s background, who later rebrands herself as Ikko and becomes Kyrie's manager. Maori were introduced to Luca—henceforth referred to as Kyrie—by their tutor, Natsuhiko Shiomi, who claims to be Kyrie’s older brother.

As the film progresses into its second hour, it is revealed that Natsuhiko was the ex-fiancé of Kyrie’s older sister, naturally sharing in her losses. When he found out that Kyrie came to find him after the Tohoku earthquake, he felt an obligation to look after her.

At this point, the narrative shifts to a flashback of Kyrie’s earlier life with her sister and their mother, a devout Christian who sought solace in her faith after her husband’s death at sea.

Traumatized by the losses of her mother and sister, Kyrie transforms into a rootless street artist with a resonant voice waiting to be discovered. Morphing into a spitting image of her older sister, she finds her own voice too painful to hear, echoing memories of despair and loss.

Singing, on the other hand, becomes her refuge, the one way she can exorcise the demons within. So, she stops speaking altogether, unless when singing, when her voice encapsulates her every emotion and enthralls the world around her. Using music as her primary outlet and means of connecting with others, this unique form of communication shapes her life.

Through its exploration of these deeply rooted emotions, the film delves into the complexities of human connections, memory, and the ways in which we hold onto and let go of the past. The result is a rich tapestry of emotion and music, capturing the struggle and beauty of finding one's voice in the silence left behind by tribulations, tragedy, and loss.

A Narrative Reflecting the Complexities of Life

Shunji Iwai employs non-linear storytelling as a fundamental narrative technique in Kyrie. It is more than a stylistic choice; it’s a mechanism that mirrors the disorientation and chaotic memories experienced by his protagonist.

By presenting events out of chronological order, Iwai challenges viewers to piece together the story, much like Kyrie attempts to reconstruct her shattered identity. As the film progresses, snippets of Kyrie’s past and present are revealed in a disjointed fashion, reflecting her fragmented path toward self-realization.

This technique allows the audience to deeply empathize with Kyrie's struggle for coherence in a life upended by catastrophic events. Each revisit to earlier scenes, now with added context, enriches our understanding of her emotions and decisions, pulling us deeper into her journey.

To an unsuspecting audience unfamiliar with Iwai’s modus operandi, Kyrie might initially seem confusing or fragmented. However, it doesn’t take much to start fitting the pieces together, and the emotional impact hits hard from the start, long before the full picture comes into focus.

To be frank, Kyrie's narrative isn't too complex compared to the challenges Iwai threw at us with films like Swallowtail Butterfly or All About Lily Chou-Chou. Besides, for fans of non-linear storytelling—as showcased in international hits like Pulp Fiction, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, Mulholland Drive, or Arrival, Iwai’s puzzles are child’s play.

Moreover, non-linear storytelling isn’t new to Japanese cinema, which often surpasses Kyrie in terms of complexity. Rashomon (1950) might be the most famous example, though it’s arguably less confounding. Yet, it paved the way for films like The Face of Another (1966, by Hiroshi Teshigahara), Go (2001, by Isao Yukisada), Pulse (2001, by Kiyoshi Kurosawa), Survive Style 5+ (2004, by Gen Sekiguchi), and Love Exposure (2008, by Sion Sono).

While these films span various genres and topics, they share a common element: narrative structures that force the audience to actively engage, piecing together the fragmented narrative to fully grasp the protagonists' experiences and transformations.

As such, these nonlinear narratives beg the question: What lies beneath the storytelling? What is hidden between the lines, and which messages are these films trying to convey? In the case of Kyrie, it might be intentionally obfuscated in the first act of the film, but soon enough, more than a few thought-provoking messages come to light.

Kyrie Analysis - A Ballad of Unheard Voices from Japan

Thanks to its nonlinear storytelling, the first hour of Kyrie appears to grapple with confused female identities, particularly during the transition into adulthood. This is indeed a controversial issue in a country where patriarchy still reigns supreme. Japan, a strictly hierarchical society, seldom offers women in the workforce the same opportunities as their male counterparts.

Consequently, an increasing number of women are forgoing traditional family roles, seeking alternative paths to forge their identities in a society that nudges them towards predestined roles. Ikko, for instance, initially shuns university, aware of the limited prospects it offers her, only to momentarily reconsider before plunging into the fringes of Japanese society.

Despite the societal expectation for everyone to pursue higher education, a significant portion of the female workforce ends up in menial positions, frequently leaving their careers post-marriage to become full-time homemakers. While homemaking is a respectable choice, it should be precisely that—a choice, not the sole path to a fulfilling life.

These homemakers often evolve into matriarchs, exerting control within the family unit, yet their influence seldom extends beyond this realm. As such, it's hardly surprising that Kyrie and Ikko struggle with their identities, prompting them to consciously adopt new personas.

"I guess the women in Japan have always been conditioned to be tough."

Shunji Iwai – Subway Cinema Interview

Their quest to shape their destinies can be seen as a reaction to the rigid gender roles in Japan—a phenomenon intricately linked to the postwar economic miracle as much as it is to the looming challenges of an aging population and a shortfall of caregivers.

The nonlinear approach to storytelling adeptly reflects Kyrie and Ikko's internal struggles. By not adhering to a chronological timeline, the film visually and emotionally conveys the turbulence of shaping one's identity amidst societal expectations.

This fluidity in time mirrors the characters' search for self, illustrating how their transformations are not linear progressions but a series of shifts and realignments. Through these jumps, the film articulates the depth of Kyrie's transformation, drawing a stark comparison between who she was and who she is turning into.

The Looming Threat of Trauma to Everyday Tribulations

As if everyday life in Japan wasn’t challenging enough for the nation's workforce, the constant threat of natural disasters like earthquakes, tsunamis, and typhoons perpetually looms. Kyrie serves as a stark reminder of this reality, depicting how our protagonist lost her mother and sister in the devastating 2011 Tohoku earthquake and tsunami.

By offering a front-row seat to the consequences of such a disaster, the film prompts us to reflect on social values, the role of community, and the processes of mourning and rebuilding in Japan—themes intricately woven into the narrative of Kyrie.

The film underscores the Japanese cultural tendency toward perseverance and stoicism. Characters navigate their emotional landscapes with a quiet intensity, characteristic of Japanese social interactions. There is a strong emphasis on internal strength and maintaining harmony within oneself and one’s community—pivotal aspects of Japanese culture.

However, it also raises a critical question: At what cost does this perseverance come? While it is admirable if it fosters a positive cycle of gaining strength through community support, what happens when it spirals into mental torment and isolation? Ikko's transformation into a manipulative con artist might be one outcome, but what about the bottled-up feelings of the masses?

Kyrie attempts to remain strong, but her selective mutism signals severe coping difficulties. Instead of confronting her loss head-on, she buries it, nearly succumbing to a society that historically neglects mental health issues, often resorting to overmedication.

Were it not for the meditative “treatment” of music, Kyrie might have never emerged from her pit of grief. Fortunately, she finds solace in songwriting and receives just enough support from Natsuhiko to confront her past trauma.

Yet, this raises concerns about those less fortunate—what about the traumatized shut-ins (Hikikomori) or the homeless salarymen whose companies failed due to an epidemic, economic downturn, or natural disaster? What about the outsiders shunned for not fitting into a society so governed by conformity that even overweight individuals struggle to secure the same job opportunities as others?

The constant threats of a world turned upside down mirror the emotional and psychological tremors experienced by the characters, particularly Kyrie, whose personal losses are framed within the broader context of national vulnerability to calamities.

Resonances from the Cracks of Society

Though Kyrie is fueled by the trauma of loss and misplaced identities, it directs our attention to individual tragedies—to the unfortunate souls who've fallen through the cracks of Japanese society. Upon first watching, I couldn’t help but think of Japan's countless victims of harsh living conditions and natural disasters.

Anyone who has traveled to Japan’s mesmerizing metropolises has likely encountered more than a few teens with guitars in hand. They are all around, singing their hearts out in random squares, parks, or subway stations.

As I followed Kyrie’s journey, which spanned over three hours from start to finish, I found myself entranced by her voice repeatedly, and my mind kept returning to these countless teens singing on Japanese streets.

What are their stories? Surely, some come from privileged homes, merely chasing a misguided dream of fame and fortune. But how many are there as a last resort, trying to find their footing or escaping the clutches of Japanese hierarchies?

It’s probably a matter of cultural differences, but as a Scandinavian outsider living in Japan, viewing everything through my foreign lenses, I know one thing for sure: I wouldn’t set up on street corners like these kids without desperation in my soul.

While it’s impossible to know how many 'Kyries' I’ve encountered on my path through Japan, I’ll certainly think twice before I pass by a Japanese street artist again. Next time, I might stop and listen more closely.

Japan is a close-knit community built on conformity and solidarity. Standing out as a person, a worker, or quite literally on the street signals something askew. Who knows? Perhaps the next teen with a guitar in hand is at his wits' end, just trying to make sense of a world gone awry. It might just be a cry for attention, but then again, it might be a cry for help.

The Making of Kyrie - A World Awry Amplified by Style

Shunji Iwai's directorial approach in Kyrie is marked by meticulous attention to expressional and visual details. He often employs intimate camera work, focusing closely on the faces of his characters, especially during taxing events and when Kyrie sings.

This technique pulls the audience into Kyrie and Ikko's internal worlds, making their emotional journeys feel more visceral and relatable. Similarly impactful is the use of hand-held camera work, natural lighting, and not to forget, the prominent soundtrack and score.

Additionally, Iwai’s choice of settings—ranging from vast, empty landscapes to crowded urban scenes—underscores the characters' emotional isolation or struggles to connect in a bustling world.

These visual contrasts are striking and deeply symbolic, echoing the film's themes of loneliness, the quest for belonging, and possibly salvation. This is particularly evident in the film's latter act, during the beachside sequence, where Kyrie confronts her inner demons and finds a measure of closure.

A “spoiler” warning might be due at this point, but it seems beside the point since this film is all about the journey, not the endpoint. Those looking for a neat conclusion might find themselves wanting.

Yet, there’s a glimmer of hope in Kyrie’s resilience. She takes a significant step toward regaining her footing in life. To set her life straight, she must first combat her inner demons, which seem momentarily defeated on the beach. However, she still has a long road ahead.

Iwai’s Pop Star of the Month - Casting and Acting Performances

Aina the End, who plays Kyrie, delivers a compelling performance that transcends traditional means of communication. Her ability to convey deep emotions through song provides a powerful commentary on the role of art in expressing unspeakable pain and healing.

Some critics have criticized her portrayal of naiveté, calling it fake and unconvincing. Ironically, this aligns well with many teenage stereotypes in Japan. Recalling the fake smiles and faux innocence that permeate Japanese everyday life, especially within teenage subcultures, her acting never bothered me in the slightest.

Instead, her approach brought to mind the countless cosplayers, idol fanboys (i.e., obsessed middle-aged men), and socially awkward youngsters congregating in places like Ikebukuro’s Otome Road, Akihabara, or Harajuku’s Takeshita Dori. Yet, when she began to sing, her voice rang true and cut through all awkwardness and insecurity.

Aina the End may still be an inexperienced actor, but her rite of passage in Kyrie struck a chord that resonated throughout the story. During confrontational scenes, such as fighting her assailant, her portrayal felt genuinely fearful. When transforming into her older sister in flashbacks, her personality shift was convincing, and her portrayal of anxiety was so gripping that it kept me hooked for the entire three hours.

The supporting cast, particularly Ikko (Suzu Hirose) and Natsuhiko (Hokuto Matsumura), elevated Aina the End’s performance, adding layers to her “serenade.” Under Iwai’s direction, the young cast accomplished more than just narrating a story; they provided insights into how individuals cope with disaster and loss and how they seek to reconstruct their identities afterward.

Thus, the acting and direction in Kyrie not only serve the narrative but also enhance the film’s cultural resonance, making it a poignant reflection on contemporary Japanese society and the universal human condition.

Aina the End - The Voice of Iwai’s Kyrie Elyeson

Kyrie’s journey throughout the film is one of internal struggle and external expression, primarily through her music. Her return to Tokyo and her decision to become a street musician are pivotal, marking her attempt to redefine her place in the world and seek connection through her songs.

This artistic outlet offers Kyrie a path to healing, enabling her to process her emotions in ways that words cannot. Her performances are not just for survival but also serve as a bridge to a world from which she feels disconnected, making her music a potent narrative tool that drives her character development and deeply engages the audience with her emotional outpour.

The songs themselves might not stand out more than those of your typical J-pop band, idol group, or Japanese singer-songwriter, but Aina the End’s voice is hauntingly beautiful. This creates a striking contrast, as the usually silent and anonymous Kyrie disappears while her powerful and throaty “psalms” captivate everyone.

"We wanted to give the feeling that part of the movie was a performance."

Shunji Iwai – The Dong-A Ilbo Interview

The Christian undertones in the film are subtly present but never fully elaborated on, especially noticeable when snippets of the psalm Kyrie Eleison waft through the air. Translating to "Lord, have mercy," the movie’s title seems to be a plea for compassion and forgiveness on a broader, existential level.

These elements resonate with themes of suffering, redemption, and the quest for grace amidst life’s trials—recurrent themes in Iwai's cinematic narratives.

In the film, the use of Kyrie Eleison amplifies the characters' struggles and desires for mercy and relief from their emotional or physical burdens. It might also represent a universal appeal to a higher power or the universe for understanding and compassion, mirroring Kyrie's path through pain and recovery.

The inclusion of this phrase enriches the film's atmosphere, adding a layer of spiritual depth to the storytelling and subtly linking the characters' personal crises with universal themes of human suffering and the search for solace.

Final Verdict: Kyrie Review

Initially, Kyrie might seem overwhelming, yet it resonates with the impactful essence of Iwai's earlier works like Swallowtail Butterfly and All About Lily Chou-Chou. It evokes the nostalgic feel of Iwai’s early filmmaking yet remains distinctly contemporary—a combination likely to thrill longtime fans and challenge contemporary audiences.

Kyrie challenges, questions, and comments; more importantly, it empathizes and professes understanding. Something is stirring in Japan that might be hard for us outsiders to fully grasp. Equality is lagging, teens are silently rebelling, and mental struggles are often overlooked. Yet, communities cling together, and people continue to create some of the most beautiful art in the world.

This film says much about many things, revealing beauty amidst national terrors and personal traumas. No matter which angle you approach Kyrie from, you will find much to uncover and enjoy in the process. The healing power of art, for instance—whether through a pop star's husky voice or a filmmaker's seasoned hand—should never be underestimated.

If you're a fan of Shunji Iwai or Japanese drama films, Kyrie is not to be missed. It requires a bit of effort but rewards viewers with a layered tale of resilience and salvation set against the cultural landscape of Japan. Whether it will stand the test of time remains to be seen, but it certainly stands out as one of 2023’s most notable Japanese films.

This review is based on my first and second impressions of the film, and on behalf of JCA, I can safely place it among my top five Shunji Iwai films. The exact ranking will be revealed in a forthcoming article. In the meantime, don’t forget to check out the film yourself at Nippon Connection 2024, the world’s largest Japanese film festival.


Film Comment: Interview: Shunji Iwai

Subway Cinema: Shunji Iwai Interview

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