Movie Reviews: Vibrator


The Japanese term for a freelancer, no matter what the occupation, is the English-derived prefix free-, and that’s how the two main characters of Vibrator introduce themselves to each other. They’re “free”, in the sense that they have no real obligations to family or friends, no connections with even the society that sustains them, however casually. They’re free to float around like unpaired oxygen atoms in the void, which explains why they bond so violently when they meet. They have nothing better to do.

Her name is Rei (Shinobu Terashima), and she’s a freelance magazine writer; his name is Okabe (Nao Omori) and he’s a former gangster hanger-on, now a truckdriver. They run into each other at a convenience store where Rei is looking for the right kind of wine to drown out the self-hating roar in her head. Nothing in her life seems real outside of the feelings she keeps bottled up inside — and in a country like Japan, where so much depends on the face you present to people, who wants to know you’re an emotional wreck? But she’s drawn to Okabe, with his dyed skullcap of blond hair and his easygoing manners, and she walks out into the parking lot where his truck’s idling to find him waiting for her. He had looked at her and felt the same electricity she did, and with that she climbs up into the cab and roars off with him into the night.


Rei and Okabe are both adrift in Japan as "freelancers", which explains
why they bond all the more ferverently when they meet up by accident.

At this point Vibrator could have gone a couple of different ways: for one, it could have become a star-crossed-lovers-on-the-road picture, where these two forlorn outsiders grab guns and go on a crime spree. Nothing of the kind happens, thank goodness — instead, we follow them for a little while in their lives together, watch them sharing the time they have, and rather then a “road picture” or “romance” what we have is one of the best, most closely-observed movies of its kind from Japan or anywhere else. It’s structured like a road picture, but it’s more about Rei (and Okabe) arriving at emotional destinations than tangible ones.

Okabe is the kind of character that Rei would have interviewed for one of her articles, and at first when she talks to him their conversations have the flavor of an interview. He’s only too happy to tell her about his variegated life: he did odd jobs for the yakuza on a low level, pimped out girls, but in the end got bored with all that and settled for freelance long-hauling, where no personal connections are required. He can find peace and solace in his vehicle the way she retreats into her head (many scenes are narrated by her “from within”). But he is gracious and gentle, and when they make love for the first time we can see that he’s not simply taking advantage of her need for company and comfort.


The connectedness the two of them experience grows beyond superficial fascination
with someone exotic and new and soon becomes something deeper and more real.

They drive and drive, heading from one odd job to another, chatting on the CB, sleeping in the cab with the engine running to keep out the frigid night air. Then, gradually, they begin to understand each other in profounder ways. Okabe realizes this is a woman with a great and sad emptiness inside her, and that as good a person as he is, he may simply not be able to fill her up — because, in the end, nothing can fill her up. And likewise, Rei comes to understand the same things: to be emotionally hungry is an immature state, and you cannot satisfy it by simply taking and taking. In the end there’s no false joy, no escapism, but a sense of real understanding on both their parts, even if it means they can’t continue to share in it together.

What Rei only learns over time is that he doesn’t just like her because she’s an outsider like him, or because they have similar tastes or even because the sex is good. Okabe likes her because he likes her — there’s no qualification to it, and because she’s never had that kind of direct affection before, she scarcely knows what to do with it. There is a scene late in the film where she throws a hysterical tantrum, complete with vomiting and tears; Okabe stays resolutely with her, and she seems stunned by the fact that she can’t simply push him away with a trick like that. She is still a child at heart, still testing the boundaries of what other people will find acceptable. Okabe makes her into an adult almost without trying. Incidentally, Nao Omori (the actor who plays Okabe) was also the same man who gave us Ichi of Ichi the Killer, but the two roles are so unlike each other you’d never guess: here he’s a lively, easygoing character, not the zombie that was demanded of him in the other film.


Vibrator shows us a Japan that looks startlingly like America's Midwest, but perhaps
it's more that the whole of the civilized world is coming to look like that as well.

Vibrator’s look and feel is modeled after any number of American road movies, but what’s most startling about it is how much it manages to make Japan look like the American Midwest. The same highways that stretch out to the horizon, the same forlorn little roadside truck stops, the same grey anonymity — maybe the point here is not simply that Japan has modeled itself a little too closely after America, but so has all of civilization as we know it. And then there are moments where Japan asserts itself gloriously, as in a nighttime roadside fire festival illuminated by hundreds of blazing candles; it’s like the honest and wide-eyed smile that appears on Rei’s face whenever she’s not hiding inside the cocoon of her head. (The entire movie was shot on a Panasonic high-definition 24P digital camera, but it has the beauty and luster of film — further evidence that with a movie, it’s the eye behind the camera and not the camera itself that matters.)

The director, Ryuichi Hiroki, also gave us Tokyo Trash Baby, again about those who eschew soulless conformity for what turns out to be an equally unfulfilling freedom. What’s best about Vibrator (the title, by the way, refers obliquely to Rei’s cellphone and isn’t specifically sexual) is how it deals with this sociological material without making a tract out of it. It never seems to be about anything other than these two people who find each other, find some happiness in the space they share, and are changed by in such a way that they realize they need to do something more than just be “free”; they also need to be whole. This is one of the best films of the year.


Tags: Japan movies review



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This page contains a single entry by Serdar in the category Movie Reviews | Movies, published on October 10, 2006 9:28 PM.

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