Japanese Movie: Hold Me Back

Hold Me Back is about a woman who lives alone and talks to a voice inside her head that gives her advice when she doesn’t know what to do. She is lonely, but satisfied with this way of coping with stress, until she starts to fall for a man she has met at work. Then she begins to worry about leaving her comfort zone, something that any of us could relate to.

First Impressions

We first meet Mitsuko at a workshop in Kappabashi, making plastic shrimp tempura. This is an area of Tokyo known for selling cooking supplies and plastic food for restaurant displays; hence the fake tempura. Afterward, she wanders around sightseeing, and we hear a man’s voice talking to her, but don’t see him. I assumed he was her imaginary friend. There are a lot of little statues around that I thought were penguins.

Then we see a golden figure with webbed hands holding a fish, and are told it’s a kappa. It’s the mascot of this neighborhood because of the similar names. I thought the important part of this scene was that Mitsuko liked the idea that the kappas were imaginary, and it was a hint that we would see many images that are only in her head. Throughout the movie, there are CGI visuals that seem to be her imagination.

The style of this movie makes it a little hard to follow what is going on because nothing is explained. We get quick glimpses of things we need to remember, and there are throwaway lines that are important but hard to catch. We see a statue of a whale for a grand total of four seconds, and are supposed to remember it when it is referred to later.

We follow Mitsuko to work and get quick looks at two men we need to keep straight. The first is an employee, Carter, who is tall and thin. The other is Tada, a salesman who comes in for a group meeting. At night, when a man shows up at Mitsuko’s house asking for food, I was afraid she was in danger because I didn’t recognize him. He turned out to be Tada.

Fortunately, we soon get a flashback that straightens things out. Mitsuko and Tada had come across each other at an outdoor food stall and recognized each other from work. It was so cute – if anyone is more awkward and shy than Mitsuko, it is Tada. They ended up with a funny arrangement where she cooks for him and he picks it up and takes it home to eat. To pay her back, he always brings her specialty treats. One of the throwaway lines tells us this has been going on for a year.

Mental Stresses

Mitsuko’s friend from work, Nozomi, gives her a coupon for a trip to a spa, but her day is ruined when a stand-up comedian is harassed by excited audience members. It reminds her forcibly of being harassed at work, and we see her scream at them to stop. Confusingly, we see her later in tears that she was unable to do it. So did she scream or not?

A similar thing happens when she has a panic attack on a plane. Her college friend, Satsuki, has moved to Rome and invited Mitsuko for a visit. Already uncomfortable on a plane, a spell of turbulence is more than she can take. Her inner voice tries to calm her and urges her to listen to her earphones, but she can’t manage it. Then we see two pairs of hands holding the earphones. As we watch what happens on the plane, once again we are left to wonder what is real and what isn’t.

The visit with Satsuki is a golden interlude separate from the rest of the movie. These two friends had missed each other a lot, and we realize just how lonely Mitsuko has been. It wasn’t until she got home that I realized that she didn’t talk to the voice in her head the whole time she was there.

Rethinking the Comfort Zone

After her trip, Mitsuko has worried arguments with her imaginary friend about his disappearance — how could she manage if he disappeared again? She has gained confidence, however, and reaches out to others more. She is more friendly with people at work. She had texted Tada from Rome, and they start seeing each other. She double-dates with Nozomi.

It looks like a sweet romance is developing when she panics again. She doesn’t know how to treat Tada, or quite what to do. Very dramatically she loses it, and we see her on a beach working through her issues in a surprising way. Again we wonder what is real. Another throwaway line tells us that this beach is a place she had visited with her family as a child.

Real or Not?

At one point Mitsuko exclaims, “I’m just a madwoman talking to myself like this! I’m going to keep talking to myself and eventually fall apart! Somebody, hold me back!” She is realizing her imaginary friend is a crutch, and it made me wonder if she was just indulging in harmless imaginative behavior, or if she was mentally ill. Many people are lonely and have similar conversations with themselves – although not usually with visual graphics.

Another option occurred to me when I rewatched the movie. I looked up information about kappas and found out that all the little “penguin” statues from the beginning of the movie were kappas too. They are mischievous water sprites and often pull people under the water and drown them, but can sometimes be helpful. They are sometimes shown as humanoid and sometimes more like turtles. Thinking about what happens later in the movie, I began to wonder if the kappas were the important part of that scene and the big hint for the plot. Is Mitsuko connected with them? She likes many kinds of water creatures, as well as the sound of water. Could that scene at the beach have been real?

This is a really cute and quirky, as well as a thoughtful movie, and it has won awards at film festivals in Japan. You can watch it on Viki. Maybe next Saturday night? It is enjoyable as a love story as well as for its deeper layers. I hope you love it as much as I do!

Until the next quirky movie,


Dramas With a Side of Kimchi

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