Yoshika Eto (Mayu Matsuoka) has been in love with her dream man for ten years. Never mind that she has not seen him since they were last in middle school together, where she charted her devotion for him via a hand drawn manga series instead of outright telling him her feelings. Yoshika has remained steadfast in her devotion, only referring to him as Ichi (Takumi Kitamura) – One – designating him as the pinnacle purpose of her life. Her intricate fantasy life is shaken, however, by the appearance of an actual suitor in the form of a colleague she contemptuously dubs Ni (Daichi Watanabe) – the number Two who cannot compete with the One that exists in her head.
Female fantasy expressed through a female lens is something that is still pretty rare to see thoroughly explored on screen, and director Akiko Ohku’s 2017 comic romance Tremble All You Want deftly explores when fantasy gets corrosive to the point of preventing a woman from engaging in real life. Yoshika is an enjoyably spiky heroine (and extinct animal enthusiast) who inwardly careens through a kaleidoscope of emotions refracted through her obsession with Ichi, where outwardly her shyness and inability to act serves as raw evidence as to why she has remained stuck in the same place for so long.
With a washed out digital aesthetic from cinematographer Natsuyo Nakamura, that gives her world a hazy, slightly sterile glow, we follow Yoshika through her day to day life as she goes to her dull job working in accounts, interacting with her colleague Kurumi (Anna Ishibashi), who comes across as Yoshika’s only close friend. She also encounters an array of folks on the journey between her job and apartment – neighbours, shop attendants, public transport commuters and ticket sellers, even an older gentleman who spends his days urban fishing – whom she exuberantly updates on her goings-on and feelings about Ichi, romance and life.
Yoshika exists in a world of dreams, memories and haptic experiences that she feels on her own – her friendly interactions with all her neighbourhood acquaintances quickly strike as odd, as you realise that at 24, she still has a very teenaged, self-centered view of the world. This immaturity comes to the fore when Ni makes his interest in pursuing a romantic relationship with her known. Ni isn’t terribly mature himself – he leans in to stalkerish tendencies and both would-be lovers make the mistake of treating each other as vehicles for new experiences rather than as people – but where Ni is ahead of Yoshika is in his openness and willingness to express himself. Yoshika is terrified by the idea of “living by instinct” and having a real romantic relationship, so Ni’s enthusiastic interest fills her with conflicting, largely terrified emotions.
A brush with mortality in the form of a very minor fire in her apartment suddenly gives Yoshika the drive to seek out Ichi – Matsuoka bellowing “I’ve learned that people die!” is a true laugh-out-loud moment that illustrates exactly how sheltered in fantasy Yoshika’s life has been thus far – and she schemes a school reunion in order to see him again. But in not being able to extract herself from her imagination, Yoshika sets herself up for being forced to confront the limits of her fantasy life, the deep misery of unrequited love, and how the journey of progression she needs to undertake in order to be mature enough to accept herself and a relationship involves deconstructing all her coping mechanisms.
There’s a lot of rom-com energy to Tremble All You Want, with the film following Yoshika’s shifting emotions in unexpected, but conversely perfect ways – at one point, Yoshika bursts into a musical number to express her fears around loneliness and friendship, and despite coming out of nowhere, it works supremely well in conveying her desolate state of mind. The film is adept at accentuating Yoshiko’s physical and emotional loneliness within the filmic space: her small apartment in particular is utilised to express both Yoshika existing in a bubble apart from the world, and as someone who has constructed her own psychological trap. Matsuoka’s performance is also terrific in playing such a mercurial character. Yoshika is at turns bubbly, ecstatic, sullen, withdrawn, furious, lovesick, cruel, overwhelmed, and Matsuoka rarely takes a wrong step in embodying this deeply complicated young woman without judgement.
There is also a weird, unfulfilled queerness to this film, with a shimmering subtext that is never overtly acknowledged but nevertheless too obvious to ignore. In imagining ideal relationships, Yoshika also envisions encounters with her friend Kurumi and a cute waitress in a themed café she frequents – in which both instances see her imagining scenes glowing with aching intimacy where she asks whether she can stroke their hair. Yoshika certainly seems to experience more true emotional connection and frisson with the women in her life than with either of her male love interests. It is a betrayal of Yoshiko’s confidence on behalf of Kurumi that evokes Yoshiko’s heartbroken tears and rage in the final act of the film. Most tellingly, in a romantic situation where Ni hesitatingly attempts to kiss her, Yoshika winds up screaming and running away. Inexperienced or not, Yoshiko – are you sure you are straight?! Like many heterosexually-orientated romantic comedies – I thought a lot about queer readings of Clueless (1995) and The Princess Diaries (2001) while watching Tremble All You Want – the plot-propulsive problems Yoshika encounters such as her uncertainty as to whether to pursue the equally unprepossessing Ichi or Ni would disappear if she decided to act on her apparent feelings for women. But I queerly digress.
“Whatever he’s like in real life, my ten years have not been wasted!”, Yoshika cries out in desperation when her dreams about Ichi begin to tarnish in the harsh glare of reality. Tremble All You Want is stark in its depiction of a situation many young women – quite understandably – find themselves in, of idolising an ideal romantic partner that is more wish than reality, and being too afraid to let go of pleasant, safe imaginings in order to take chances with real people. Overlong, yes, and with some questionable heterosexual male love interests, but what beats at the centre of Tremble All You Want is worthwhile: it is better to let a heart break, than to never allow for the chance at all.
Tremble All You Want premiered as part of the We Are One: A Global Film Festival on 5 June 2020, and will be available to stream for free until 11 June 2020.
Hayley Inch is a film critic, writer and broadcaster living on Wurundjeri land. She is a resident film critic on RRR’s Breakfasters program and is a contributor to Filmed In Ether. You can talk to her on Twitter about Hong Sang-soo films at @hayley_sass.