Credit: ”Hold Me Back” Film Partners
by Sean Gilman Film

Hold Me Back | Akiko Ohku

August 17, 2021

Ohku Akiko’s Hold Me Back is, like her 2017 film Tremble All You Want, a portrait of a lonely young woman whose inner life manifests itself on-screen in fantastical sequences more reminiscent of anime than traditional romantic comedy. Tremble was a kind of musical about a woman trying to choose between a past crush and a new man in her life. Hold Me Back is significantly darker than that, its hero not always safely navigating the borderline between whimsicality and serious mental illness.

Mitsuko is an office worker in her early thirties who lives alone. She carries on long conversations with an entity she calls “A,” which might be her internal monologue, her conscience, an alternate personality, or a kind of guardian angel. She has a crush on a work friend, a younger man she occasionally sees: they live in the same neighborhood and sometimes she cooks him meals which he, being just as socially awkward as her, takes home to eat alone. Notably, Mitsuko does not appear to be painfully shy or incompetent when dealing with other people; rather, she’s just an ordinary young woman, which implies that her loneliness, and the panic and depression it inspires, is not anything all that strange: everyone, at least at times, feels the same way. It’s just that because she’s in a movie, Mitsuko’s emotions manifest themselves in visually imaginative ways. 

As such, Ohku’s films have more in common with slice-of-life anime, say the films and TV series by Kyoto Animation (K-On!, Sound! Euphonium, Nichijou) than they do with Hollywood romantic comedy, even in its quirkier forms, like the films of Michel Gondry, or else the entire manic pixie canon. Ohku’s fantasies are not merely funny or weird or beautiful for their own sake (though they are all of those things), but are inextricably tied to the psychological condition of her heroines, women about whose sanity we’re never entirely sure — how much of Mitsuko’s life is hallucination is impossible to tell. We can be pretty sure that a musical sequence on an airplane, set to Otaki Eiichi’s 1981 city pop classic “Kimiwa Ten-en Shoku” (a song also used in Sound! Euphonium), is not real, but rather a manifestation of music’s power to calm Mitsuko’s nerves as she confronts her fear of flying. But how much of her interactions with her would-be boyfriend, then, are fact or fantasy? And is the young man who another work friend has a crush on really as ridiculous as he seems, or is our perception colored by Mitsuko’s bias against him? To this end, Ohku is aided immensely by a strong performance by Non (Nōnen Rena), a model and singer who is probably best known abroad for being the lead voice in the 2016 anime In this Corner of the World (she also stars in Iwai Shunji’s upcoming The 12 Day Tale of the Monster that Died in 8). Non plays all aspects of Mitsuko’s personality straight, bringing a hard edge to the cuteness, and tempering the desperation with reserves of inner strength.

But it remains that Ohku’s films aren’t really romantic comedies. She’s less interested in relationships, or the idea of love, than she is in the ways we deal with its absence, in the ways we’re all alone in our own heads, and the seeming impossibility of therefore connecting with another person. Mitsuko in Hold Me Back seems to break through and find such a connection: the film is, after all, ultimately a comedy. But what lingers most after the music fades is the relatable feeling of her panic, her failures, and her abject, familiar loneliness.

Published as part of NYAFF 2021 — Dispatch 2.