24-year-old Nozomi (Erika Karata) had a respectable job at an advertising agency. After incessant and exhausting overtime, she quit. Now she works at a convenience store and pays the rent on a one-room apartment, all the time hiding from her mother that she does not work at the agency any more. A chance encounter with a former classmate from junior high school (Haruka Imou) may provide Nozomi with the outlet to express herself that she desperately needs.
This is When Morning Comes, I Feel Empty, an independent short feature from Japanese director Yuho Ishibashi. It is clearly restrained by a limited production budget – the cast is small and events occur within a small set of locations – but Ishibashi makes stunning use of these restrictions to give her film a remarkable intimacy and a close focus upon its key characters. While there are several supporting players, it is more than anything Nozomi’s story.
Wanting to quit an unpleasant job is something with which I think many can identify, particularly after the pandemic-related exhaustion that so many of us felt after the past few years. The long hours that Nozomi simply can no longer handle seem particularly relevant to Japanese viewers, who traditionally have one of the longest work weeks in the developed world. Recent years have included extensive talk of ‘quiet quitting’ and ‘the great resignation’, and Ishibashi has captured the zeitgeist with this piece. The low-key fashion in which Nozomi’s situation is presented and developed is to the film’s credit. In conversations there is as much of importance not mentioned as there is discussed. Interestingly Ishibashi chooses not to show Nozomi’s parents: a father is mentioned but never present, and her mother only exists as a voice on her smartphone. Her presence, however, feels constant and brings a deep worry of her potential disapproval.
Karata does an excellent job in the lead role. The script and direction have given her plenty of tools with which to work, and she handles them brilliantly. Not only is the film relatively short, it is also deliberately slow in its pace. Karata is given valuable time to form her character, and does not waste the opportunity.
Ishibashi shoots the film well, with some attractive photography and fairly obvious but effective symbolism.
There is a great tradition in independent Japanese cinema for short features; that is, films that run longer than 50 minutes but less than 90. It is a deeply underrated length for dramatic storytelling and is perhaps equivalent in narrative to the literary short story – since properly short films more often than not resemble vignettes. At 76 minutes When Morning Comes tells a very constrained and limited story, but in all honesty it does so to perfection. It is a shame that it remains such a difficult length of film to sell to an international audience.
When Morning Comes, I Feel Empty is screening at the Osaka Asian Film Festival. Click here for more information.