I can think of few movies that express the pain of being young better than Hiroshi Teshigahara and Kobo Abe’s Ako (1964). I first happened upon it by chance, lurking among the supplements on the Criterion edition of Woman in the Dunes. Both films were made in the same year, but in contrast to the feature’s capital-A Allegorizing of the human condition, the little-known thirty-minute short is modest, more vibrant. It chronicles a frenetic twenty-four hours in the life of a poor Japanese sixteen-year-old (Miki Irie) and her teen friends as they work in a bread factory by day and tear up the town by night. Well after making this DVD discovery, I found myself thinking about Ako more than the justly renowned Woman in the Dunes, and perhaps that has something to do with the short’s haunting brevity, how it conveys all of the obscene velocity of its world in a flurry of unforgettable impressions. Never once does the film let you dwell on the ponderous suffering of life, but suffering is never forgotten, and is often indistinguishable from relief. To be groggy by habit, to be lost, to struggle with the alienness of one’s own body and how it’s mangled and misinterpreted by men who seek to dominate: this is the state of automatic caprice that Ako captures with violent immediacy.
An alarm clock ticks away the blank seconds that Ako has to herself at dawn, before she’s once again back on the five-to-nine grind, processing raw dough in a deafeningly loud factory. Teshigahara and Irie pay fine attention to all the details that go into an overworked girl’s morning routine: the frigid water she splashes on her face to prepare herself for the long day, the powder puffs applied to her cheeks to cover up the pimples reflected back to her by a compact mirror. Eerily, the film’s opening plays without any sound. A more conventional, post–John Hughes take on youth would try to lure viewers in with pop flourishes and a montage of cool postures. Instead, Ako takes its time to show how, even at the age of sixteen, a person’s pleasure and pain are always fatefully entangled. Ako is one episode of the four in La fleur de l’âge, ou Les adolescents (1964), an omnibus film commissioned by the National Film Board of Canada on the turmoil of adolescence (the other parts were directed by Jean Rouch, Gian Vittorio Baldi, and Michel Brault). It falls in the middle of the run of symbol- and doom-laden allegories that cemented Teshigahara’s reputation in the 1960s: after Pitfall (1962) and Woman in the Dunes, before The Face of Another (1966) and The Man Without a Map (1968). Like those films, it was coadapted by Abe from one of the author’s own short stories (most of which remain untranslated into English) and was scored and sound-designed by the prolific modernist composer Toru Takemitsu.
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