Japan is pretty well known as a socially withdrawn country. It is not simply the matter of hikkomori; a widely reported-on phenomenon of pathological withdrawal that sees individuals self-isolated in their own homes for years at a time. Japanese culture more generally observes a social pattern that favours formalised, respectful interactions over open expression of one’s feelings. In a balance between decorum and self-expression, politeness would seem to beat emotion every time – and that represents a struggle for many young Japanese men and women. Director Yurina Kaneko, who contributed the “Projection” segment to 2019’s portmanteau film 21 Regular Girls, gently explores these issues of self-expression and loneliness in the fabulously titled People Who Talk to Plushies are Kind. It based on a short story by Ao Omae. It is a quiet and delicate delight.
Nanamori (Kanata Hosoda) is a shy and social awkward student starting college for the first time. There he meets fellow student Mugito (Ren Komai), and together they check out the college’s Plushies Club. Rather than a club that makes plush toys (as they expected), it is a club where a group of shy and introspective students tell their problems and concerns to a range of fluffy soft toys scattered around the room. It is a form of therapy, clearly, but it is also a means of getting problems off one’s chest without breaching the socially agreed conventions of Japanese communication. In that regard, People Who Talk to Plushies is one of my favourite kinds of Japanese film: the kind that could only exist in the context of Japan.
Nanamori and Mugita are not the only members of the club, of course. There is also Yui Shiraki (Yuzumi Shintani), a young woman who joins the club but lacks any interest in talking to plushies. It is rapidly clear she is using the club as an escape from a patriarchy society, yet at the same time she is quick to start dating Nanamori – who in the film’s earliest moments demonstrates an inability to engage romantically wih girls. There is also Tarayama (Gaku Hosokawa), an older student who has come to rely on talking to plushies much more than his friends. The variety of characters allow the film to explore its slightly unusual premise from a multitude of angles, and with differing responses by each individual.
Of courses the plushies are never going to talk back. They are, at best, a passive and silent sounding board for students to express their concerns and anxieties. Actually developing as people will require the very interactions the plushie club was invented to avoid – it is a strict rule to wear headphones in the club room so as not to overhear another’s confessions. The shy, withdrawn nature of the characters allow the film to track and evolve their emotional states in a remarkably gentle and respectful fashion; it gives it a distinctive and very satisfying style. This is a strong debut feature for Yurina Kaneko. With luck it will not be long until we see a second.