From its first frames, Rikiya Imaizumi’s Call Me Chihiro is easily identifiable as a Netflix original. Adapted from Hiroyuki Yasuda’s manga Chihiro-san, the film’s flat, textureless cinematography and crisp digital sheen carry the signifiers associated with the kind of streaming dross that any discerning cinephile would avoid like the plague. Content-wise, the film doesn’t appear to fare any better: main character Chihiro (Kasumi Arimura) is a former sex worker with a naturally sunny disposition. Widely beloved, she brightens people’s day while working at a bento shop, pets a stray kitten, and even feeds, bathes, and clothes a homeless man (Keiichi Suzuki) — all within the first ten minutes no less.
The sleepy seaside town she lives in is home to a number of kooky characters like Okaji (Hana Toyoshima), a teenager who spends her free time stalking Chihiro, taking pictures of the young woman, clearly enthralled. The sage Chihiro, meanwhile, turns out to be aware of this, playfully confronting Okaji when she finally works up the courage to speak to her. Moments like this reveal Call Me Chihiro‘s biggest problem: its protagonist is a bit of a goody two-shoes. Instead of being alarmed by Okaji’s stalking, she recognizes the girl’s social alienation and forms a maternal bond with the bespectacled teen. Even when a foul-mouthed young boy’s mean-spirited prank culminates in him stabbing her in the arm with a pen, she takes it in stride, offering to buy the boy a hamburger bento and doling out a very pedagogically progressive punishment which consists of light teasing and asking him to apologize. Of course, the boy, Makoto (Tetta Shimada), warms up to her pretty much immediately.
The largely plotless drama’s relaxed pace feels appropriate given its setting, and the stakes are suitably low. Anything resembling conflict usually comes in the form of mundane misunderstandings or conflicting desires — a single mother reprimanding someone for making her look bad in front of her neighbors, a young girl not wanting to go on a family trip — and it takes a good while before Call Me Chihiro delves into its titular character’s somewhat turbulent inner life. Although the script doesn’t always do her a lot of favors, Arimuri imbues the superficially flawless Chihiro with some rough edges, especially once the film finally decides to foreground her loneliness and lingering grief from her mother’s death, while never allowing her to be anything other than unfailingly kind and understanding.
The reveal that her chipper energy obscures a more mournful side isn’t exactly a surprise, as any attentive viewer will likely be able to piece together that her ability to bring joy and comfort to so many stems from her own rather isolated life, her habit of neglecting herself while constantly being concerned for others becoming clear relatively early on. When she comes across the dead body of the homeless man she had previously taken care of, she is alone in her grief, choosing not to share her tragic find with anyone. As there is no one to inform of his death, she ends up burying him herself, before returning to her lonely apartment to sullenly wash the dirt off her skin.
Quietly melancholy sequences like these are what make Imaizumi’s latest more memorable than most of what currently clogs the digital arteries of streaming platforms — this goes double for Netflix, whose library is overstuffed with beige, throwaway content fodder that seems to have been conceived by an AI — and its reflections on loneliness and the value of strong communities and found family do, to a generous viewer at least, carry shades of Hideaki Anno’s 2000 arthouse romance Ritual and Satoshi Kon’s 2003 animated comedy-drama Tokyo Godfathers. This isn’t to say that Call Me Chihiro comes anywhere close in terms artistic value — or excitement for that matter — but as far as Netflix originals go, one could do a lot worse than this warm-hearted, empathetic, and yes, occasionally uneventful and saccharine slice-of-life drama.
You can currently stream Call Me Chihiro on Netflix.
Published as part of InRO Weekly — Volume 1, Issue 9.