MATCHA AND VANILLA
Directed by: Hamish Downie
Written by: Hamish Downie [screenplay]; Tomoka Hayakawa, Qyoko Kudo [dialogue]
Featuring: Tomoka Hayakawa, Qyoko Kudo, Rebecca Rehm, Asuka Goto, Yukiko Ito, Kazuya Moriyama
Ai and Yuki are two women who have been in a same-sex relationship in conservative Japan for over a decade. On top of the difficulties, they face with this they both must suddenly deal with a looming crisis in their lives that individually could put an unrepairable strain on any relationship. With these troubles combined can their seemingly strong and lasting life together survive the strains and pressures it is put under?
The film is called Matcha and Vanilla, helpfully the main character Yuki explains early on what this means, I know what vanilla is, but matcha? Well, it is bitter and sweet, and Matcha and Vanilla if nothing else lives up to this label, luckily for the viewer it is more than an on-the-nose film title.
Like these two sensations, tastes perhaps, I am not sure how you specify what they truly are, Ai and Yuki are opposites but like saying they attract, Yuki is more outgoing and spontaneous and Ai is quiet and shy and a little older. From this point we see the green shoots of the relationship and then once set-up and confirmed we jump ten-years ahead as Hamish Downie both writer and director wastes no time getting to the meat of his story.
The dramatic driver, of what essentially is a two-hander, is the ‘bitter’ thrown into the women’s idyllic relationship. One being biological and terminal and the other economic and crippling, without delving too further into this we are treated from this point what the two women will do to keep their relationship going.
Although it could be said that the lesbian relationship seems soft-focussed and perfect, the women never seem to fall out over anything, the story drives home that despite this both will lie, cover-up and stoop to unheard of levels to stay with the other, so again the sweet and the bitter.
Less than a third into the story and you will know exactly where we are heading for the final two-thirds. A sweet tale with a bitter taste, Downie, if nothing else is consistent with his theme and motif from the get-go.
Being independent and on a small budget it is obvious every penny counts so like most films of this nature what will drive it to success or failure is the strength of the story and the actors. Within this limitation Downie concentrates almost exclusively on the two women and here is the strength of the film. Tight in personal close ups of Hayakawa and Kudo’s faces for a lot of running time takes us close in to their love for each other the exclusion of everything else. The two leads have an impressive chemistry making their relationship more solid and real despite the lack of conflict. Downie must have thanked his lucky stars when both ladies agreed to the roles.
Despite my criticism of the lack of dramatic conflict in the relationship the bitter is ladled in there with what happens to both Ai and Yuki and in particular does not shy away from the absolute depths, in particular Ai, both will plumb to stay with their love.
The story does not outstay its welcome and for the tale it tells it is well-paced which is a feat in this day and age. With good acting, an interesting story, highlighting ideas and situations I have not seen in Japanese films too often Hamish Downie on limited resources has produced a good effort. Certainly, worth an hour or so of anyone’s time.
The criticisms are small and as usual only personal to me. For a film that is questioning the attitude of modern Japan to same-sex relationships and couples I would have liked to have seen it a bit more front and centre in the story. I dislike handholding but if anything, Downie lets the unsavoury responses and attitudes off the hook to my mind. The ‘religious cult’ who could cure them of cancer (and being gay) should have perhaps been explored a bit more – maybe another film though, that is a big sticky subject on its own I would hazard a guess – Yuki’s father’s response on the phone was succinct and fully clear but I would have like that explored more. A few scenes confused me and could have been exorcised without harming the story. The phone call to ‘Matt’, the photoshoot and the ‘guy on the street’ did not really drive the story forward for me.
For a first feature both directing and writing Hamish Downie certainly did not shy away from a difficult and interesting subject and I would have to say overall his whole cast and crew made an excellent job of it. With more experience and perhaps a bigger budget, is that even necessary, it will be interesting to see what he tackles next.
Hamish Downie is an Australian writer/producer and music video director based in Japan. Notable work includes the 2011 music video for Robyn Loau’s (lead singer of Aussie girl group Girlfriend) single Never Let You Down, and the award-winning short films Silence and An American Piano. His debut feature film, Matcha & Vanilla recently came out on Gagaoolala streaming service.