Film review by David Cirone
– Screening as part of the Japan Cuts Film Festival on Saturday, July 29, 2023
Summary (from the Japan Cuts website)
North American Premiere. Since her youth—and not-so-subtly informed by her own father—25-year-old Sawako (Akari Fukunaga) has had a deep curiosity about older men. Sawako’s observations and liaisons are humorous and amusing even as her fascination manifests into a scrapbook of candid photos of unassuming older “happy” men. Adroitly adapting Nao-Cola Yamazaki’s novel of the same name, Hand engages headfirst with female desire, male fragility, and self-discovery through the eyes of its witty and mild-mannered protagonist. Belonging to a string of new pinku productions celebrating 50 years of Nikkatsu’s Roman Porno, Daigo Matsui’s charming erotic tale stays true to the softcore label’s legacy (most notably, a requisite sex scene every 10 or so minutes) while refreshingly modernizing its roots.
* This film is unrated but not recommended for audiences under 18 years of age due to strong sexual content.
In director Daigo Matsui’s Hand, 25-year-old Sawako is lost in an aimless office job, with no serious goals in her professional or personal life. She keeps commitment of any kind at at a distance, but enjoys a hobby of observing and manipulating older men. They’re easy targets for a willing young female, and she scrapbooks her observations — either firsthand sexual encounters or faraway snapshots — with the help of her younger sister.
Akari Fukunaga presents a detailed, multi-layered portrayal of Sawako as she journeys through various lovers, taking in their life experience as they readily share life advice. Many of the men are married and fathers to children near Sawako’s age, and this dynamic sets up Hand‘s most interesting parallel: as Sawako comes and goes with complete freedom in these relationships, her own relationship with her father is void of attention or affection. He ignores her at home, preferring to dote on Sawako’s bubbly, ambitious sister who is studying for her university entrance exams.
When one of Sawako’s older boyfriends suddenly dies, she wonders about the other men she has casually dismissed in her five-year exploration of May-December affairs. She tracks down her former paramours and reminisces about time gone by, finding most of them have fonder memories than she does. This concentrated emotional accounting brings Sawako to a major change in her life, and she starts to flirt with a young man at her office (Daichi Kaneko).
While screenwriter Date Sorami adapts Yamazaki Nao-Cola’s novel into voiceover, this major transition is not explained with words, relying entirely on Fukunaga’s on screen behavior to let us understand this change. Sawako is deeply unsatisfied with life, and that unease creeps into the character’s quietest moments. It’s really a pleasure to watch Fukunaga switch on a dime from sober, worn analysis to a practiced cuteness that lures men in their 40s and 50s into her life to be her new playthings, even momentarily.
Hand contains several sex scenes, but the erotic physical behavior is balanced by Matsui’s focus on Sawako’s state of mind — even though we get a lot of passionate physical moments, we’re always conscious that there is an internal battle for balance going on at the same time.
Whether the fault is in the novel or adaptation, Hand fails to give its male characters equal footing, and they are almost entirely presented as objects of pity or scorn, guilty of Sawako’s astute judgments. When Sawako allows her boss to an overnight date, she chastises him for talking about father-daughter relationships during their encounter. When a lover breaks up with her to marry his fiancée, she reacts like a girl who never could have imagined it was possible. There’s a part in the film where Sawako voices her view that men think they initiate and control every romantic encounter, when in fact, every tryst is a collaboration. I felt that Hand missed a chance to make Sawako equally culpable for these relationship failures.
The dynamic between Sawako and her sister Rika (Natsuko Obuchi) is a bright spot in the film — while Sawako is experienced and jaded, Rika is starry-eyed about sex, looking forward to her first time with her soon-to-be-long-distance boyfriend. Those moments bring a much needed warmth and empathy to a film that’s sometimes a little too cold.
Japan Cuts 2023
Presented by Japan Society (New York)
July 26 — August 6, 2023