Japanese writer-director Daigo Matsui’s Just Remembering is a romance told in reverse order that not only acknowledges COVID but incorporates some sense of how it’s changed our lives into the film’s store.
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Japanese writer-director Daigo Matsui’s told-in-reverse-order romance, Just Remembering, is one of the few recent films that not only acknowledges the COVID-19 pandemic but uses it as a structuring principle. The film begins in late July 2021, when the Tokyo Olympics are happening, but people are still masked and avoiding crowded indoor gatherings. The fleeting encounters Yo (Sairi Ito) has in her cab are the kind that we recognize as increasingly rare in a world where people have self-isolated by necessity.
Yo takes an emotional hit when she first spots Teruo dancing: are we about to see why the flame should or will be rekindled? Though romantic, Matsui’s film has the maturity to show us the early signs of why the pair will end up breaking up. It’s not even something hostile or horrible, but just ways in which they’re mismatched, that will matter more as they get older. There’s also a hint in the blocking of this encounter that the remembrances will be just that — a momentary trip back through time, not meant to alter their lives today — in how Yo hangs at the back of the auditorium, unseen, while Teruo dances, unaware of his audience. We don’t know if they’ll say hello, but Matsui creates deliberate distance here between them.
With these remembrances set on a day of ritual celebrations, Just Remembering is also itself a film about daily rituals, mostly banal, and how they change or don’t change with time. Each year, we watch Yo’s (now ex) boyfriend, Teruo, wake up in his apartment, do his stretching exercises, water the plants, walk down the stairs, and through the nearby park.
The park is an especially fantastic location choice because its path has built-in twists and turns, and spots that signify certain times of life — the playgrounds of the past, or possible future with children, and an elderly man who spends this day every year sitting on the bench, waiting for his Godot wife to turn up. Small things change each year: in 2021, Teruo is wearing a mask; his hair cut changes; how busy the park is changes; but many things are constant. And yet, as the rest of his activities throughout the day will reveal, his whole life goes through major irreversible shifts, and yet, he’s still in this apartment and still walking through the park. Matsui highlights what hasn’t changed by using the same shots for the same journey each year.
Each day begins with a shot of Teruo’s wall clock that states the time, the date, and the day of the week, and as the years go back, so, too, do the days of the week. It’s a nice touch to subtly orient the audience in these time shifts without needing chirons. More importantly, it roots those subtle changes in his apartment, which is where many of them can be seen in the excellent production design.
There’s the lived-in atmosphere of its current state, post-Yo, which contrasts to the emptiness of the apartment when he first moved in, the newfound clutter of Yo’s move in, and the absolute hellscape of it after the foot injury that will end his dance career. Even after Yo has left, there are signs of her left behind: a beret she bought him when his hair was longer, a poster of a film they both loved and watched together religiously. Without much change in furniture, the apartment decoration changes to reflect how Teruo’s life changes throughout the film.
Yo, meanwhile, is seen each day driving her cab, her one consistent personal space throughout the years. The cars and customers change, but her uniform and sunny attitude about the job remain constant. There are lovely, subtle ways that Yo’s and Teruo’s banal rituals cosmically connect them through time and space. In the present day, we see Yo doing the same morning stretching exercises in the car park that Teruo is doing in his home; later, we discover that they used to do these together. As we go back in time, we also discover that key moments in their relationship happened in cabs, too: admitting their feelings to one another and fights that they couldn’t recover from.
Even starting at the end, there’s tension in the film as we wonder how the pair met and why they broke up. Matsui’s screenplay reveals most of this information in subtle reveals that don’t necessarily cause fights or tension at the time, but can be seen as warning signs. At one point, Yo mentions how the only thing she knows she wants is a family. Teruo looks terrified at the prospect, doesn’t respond at all, and they file it away as a problem for later. We find out in 2021 that Teruo sustained a life-altering injury that would end his dancing career and turn him into a lighting coordinator.
By now, he’s reasonably at peace with it, though the dance Yo spotted where he’s free and happy until his foot stops him mid-step, suggests he never quite put that dream to bed. As we go back in time, we see how poorly Teruo initially dealt with the injury. But perhaps more interesting is why Yo finds his inability to move on frustrating. He’s ambitious for his career; she’s happy driving a cab. How do they make sense as a couple? That’s ultimately what ends them, but also what’s intriguing about their meet cute, when we finally get her origin story, which has only been hinted at, later on.
There are lovely scenes in the film that are both the product of pandemic filming restrictions, and a reminder of how differently we see people in empty spaces today than we did in years past. When Yo and Teruo first meet, we watch them walk through unrealistically empty streets for years past — but it makes emotional sense, because when people fall in love, it’s as if they’re the only ones there. Since the film recognizes that we’ve lived through COVID, it also asks us to look back on these scenes through new eyes that are wistful not just for youth but for the Before Times, a heightened approach to thinking about the past. Today, they’ve lost the freedom of movement not just because of adulthood, but because of the pandemic.
Early in their relationship, they sneak into an aquarium during off hours to take it in alone. It’s a stolen moment of privacy and intimacy, but it also echoes those early 2020 lockdown images of previously busy street corners suddenly emptied. The romance of the moment is not just of young love, but of times lost and past.
By playing out in reverse chronological order, Just Remembering takes us closer and closer to the times when Yo and Teruo’s relationship worked and made sense. The further we get away from the present, the more we want to root for them, and yet, the more we understand what they didn’t at the time: even in those initial blissful moments, there are so many signs of why it can’t and won’t work forever. And yet, so much at the root of what ended things is the unforeseeable injury Teruo sustains that fundamentally changes both their lives. Would it have ended otherwise? It’s a reminder that whether on the global or the personal scale, things can fundamentally alter our paths in ways we could never have imagined.
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