Woman of the Photographs (2020)

As its very title suggests, writer/director Takeshi Kushida’s Woman of the Photographs is a film concerned with images. Shy, taciturn Kai (Hideki Nagai) is a one-time award-winning photographer who works and lives in an old, rather run-down studio shop where he takes people’s ID photos and retouches their images digitally to remove any unflattering features. Kai’s regular clients include the lonely, divorced Saijo (Toshiaki Inomata), who is starting to wonder what has become of the daughter whose appearance he knows only from a photograph of her as child – and Hisako (Toki Koinuma), who insists that Kai make her look completely different in the photographs that she uses in her pursuit of a husband. 

Kai is also fascinated by insects, and on an excursion to photograph beetles in the forest, he runs into and helps Kyoko (Itsuki Otaki), who has cut herself badly while climbing a tree. Kyoko asks Kai to photoshop away her scars before she posts her images online – and an initially platonic, strangely symbiotic relationship develops between them that leads to Kyoko moving in (but occupying a different room). This relationship evolves as Kyoko engages in a sadomasochistic negotiation between her body, her image and her self – a negotiation in which she struggles both to acquire more followers and online adulation,  and to cling to her own sense of authenticity – even as we too wonder if this woman who falls out of a tree into Kai’s life is real or mere fantasy.

Though Takeshi Kushida’s feature debut is shot mostly in a plain, unfussy style, this belies the surreal nature of a fairytale-like story in which photographic images come to life (and even talk), in which ghosts and doppelgängers appear on-screen, and in which mirrors and reflective surfaces are everywhere to confront people with both actual and imagined versions of themselves and others. Serving as a near constant reminder of the film’s artifice is the absolute silence maintained (almost) to the very end by Kai, making him like one of the mute characters so often found in the filmic fables of Kim Ki-duk (like The Isle, 2000; Bad Guy 2001; 3-Iron, 2004; The Bow, 2005; Breath, 2007 and Moebius, 2013). Meanwhile, Kai’s status as a photographer, and a final scene in which he merely mimes holding a camera even as we hear the sound of its non-existent flash bulb, recall Michelangelo Antonioni’s illusory Blowup (1966). 

As gynophobic Kai becomes Kyoko’s photographer and the key manipulator of her image, he also alone comes to see her for who she is, with love and without judgement. This makes Woman of the Photographs an odd sort of romance (with an even odder meet-cute) – and if its title recalls Hiroshi Tehigahara’s Woman of the Dunes (Sung no onna, 1964), then Kushida’s film adopts a similarly entomological approach to relations between men and women. Though perhaps a little dry, and longer than it need be, this enigmatic feature offers a whole album of ideas about self, image and self-image, and leaves it to the viewer to see the bigger picture.  

strap: Takeshi Kushida’s Woman of the Photographs is a kaleidoscopic fable of image and identity, photography and fake.

© Anton Bitel