Review: ‘Aristocrats’ Examines Social Class in Tokyo Today

Courtesy of IFFR.

Haibara Hanako (Kadowaki Mugi) is a wealthy Tokyoite. She is calm and shy, and her family is keen to discuss her future marriage prospects. By the end of the dinner, her family has already lined up an eligible man to meet him, without any input from her.

Tokioka Miki (Mizuhara Kiko) is the opposite. She comes from a small prefecture, with an unemployed father and a rascal brother. Through hard work, Miki tests at prestigious Keio University, but family circumstances demand that she drop out. Instead of going home, she takes matters into her own hands and works as a hostess, eventually making her way to a computer station in an office.

Through these women, aristocrats reveals the invisible walls erected by his social class. “Tokyo is compartmentalized,” one character thinks. “You only meet people from your own social class. Indeed, while modernity and capitalism promise a world where people can easily move up and down the class ladder, aristocrats says class is more than money. Echoing the thoughts of George Orwell this class is made up of “mores and traditions learned … in childhood” which persist “until death”, Hanako, Miki and others find themselves continually unable to escape the constraints imposed on them by the class.

Courtesy of IFFR.

Class divisions

While Miki and Hanako live in different worlds, their bond with a man named Aoki Keichiro (Kora Kengo) brings them closer together.

Keichiro is a promising politician who belongs to one of Japan’s foremost political families. aristocrats emphasizes the rigidity of his life due to his family background: he only frequents restaurants where his family has been before, and his grandfather decided on his career path as a child. Her marriage is also a family affair — like sociologist Sawako Shirahase says, marriage is the key to maintaining class structures from one generation to the next. As such, Keichiro marries Hanako to satisfy his family. However, it is clear that he feels little for her and reserves most of his affection for Miki, despite being socially maladjusted due to her lower status.

aristocrats frequently depicts the communication gaps that classes have with each other. In one scene, Hanako’s manicurist makes a date with a working-class man. She finds herself unable to communicate with him; the man is just as clumsy, choosing instead to chat with the manicurist who introduced them. In another, Miki is having tea with a few upper-class girls talking about trips abroad while Miki sits in silence.

The film emphasizes this theme while maintaining a strong sense of belonging. Austere traditional interiors and heavy social formalities define Hanako’s Tokyo; even something as simple as dining in a restaurant is an elaborate affair, with multiple courses and timid waiters. In contrast, Miki’s world consists of cluttered houses filled with junk and personal memories. The conversation takes place freely, formalities being reserved for business interactions, and meals taken on occasion kiss and izakaya.

Ultimately, no one escapes the classes they were born into. However, each woman eventually finds a greater sense of agency by embarking on adventures with her friends. Hanako thrives on pursuing a career managing his violinist friend, while Miki ends up working with a friend in a commercial enterprise. The film plays out its conclusion in a series of calm slices from the life of each woman. In this way, aristocrats suggests that while there is little an individual can do to change class, there is still solace to be found in friendships, and agency to be found in making their way within the boundaries of his class.

Courtesy of IFFR.

Social expectations

Kadowaki Mugi stands out as Hanako, bringing sensitivity, innocence and silent pain to his performance. While Hanako is brought up under privileged circumstances, it is clear through her insane expressions that she is trapped. When Keichiro proposes to Hanako, Mugi returns his joy with childish naivety. One feels that Hanako is only happy because society has told her, throughout her life, that she should be happy, because the height of accomplishment for a woman is to marry a rich man and of high status. Her slow collapse into suppressed pain and dull apathy, holding back her desire to pursue a career, alongside her trips to fertility clinics, is heartbreaking to see.

The parts of aristocrats Miki-centric suffer in comparison. While Miki is nominally an outsider to the high society world, she displays little discomfort in high-end situations. In one scene, she mingles with Keichiro and other wealthy Tokyoites at a New Years Eve party, looking perfectly natural and at ease. While it is possible that Miki is simply a bigger social chameleon, her behavior is at odds with the dialogue, which continually expresses her unease and fear of the wealthy. Miki and his friends also expose many central themes of the film in an explicit dialogue, which has the effect of making their characters blurry and indistinct. aristocrats tells her about the class ailments, rather than showing them – for example, when she has tea with high society girls, her friend whispers to her not to look so shocked by the prices, because they now dine with aristocrats. The scene already made it clear that they were dining with aristocrats, so the dialogue flattens the effect and appears unnatural.

Indeed, the heavy dialogue is the central weakness of the film. When Hanako and Miki first meet, Hanako is surprised that Miki’s family hasn’t displayed dolls for Girls party. Yes aristocrats Leaving it there, the message would already be clear: Hanako and Miki belong to different social classes and celebrate the holidays differently because of it. However, this continued to insist on the point, with Miki talking about various other vacations her family didn’t celebrate, and Hanako’s friend intervened with shocked interjections. In another, Miki and her working-class friend gaze at the glittering towers of upscale Tokyo neighborhoods and notice that this was the vision of Tokyo they all longed for, but ultimately couldn’t achieve. While aristocrats was based on a book, as a movie, those themes would be stronger if they weren’t so explicitly stated. As a result, the characters sometimes appear as spokespersons.

aristocrats is an enjoyable film with a convincing performance. The cinematography is sober and beautiful, abundant with shots that establish a strong sense of belonging. However, his awkward dialogue leaves him toothless, especially compared to the biting satire of other class-oriented films such as Parasite. Ultimately, aristocrats contents itself with portraying the class divisions of Japanese society without making radical statements, quietly lamenting the rigidity of class barriers while suggesting that individuals have sufficient agency to seek happiness within their own social class. It refrains from stepping on anyone’s feet and thus turns into a sympathetic, albeit somewhat unforgettable, melodrama.

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Aristocrats (Japanese: あ の こ は 貴族)-Japan. Dialogue in Japanese. Directed by Yukiko Sode. First outing 2021. Duration 2h 4min. With Kadowaki Mugi, Mizuhara Kiko.

aristocrats screened at the Rotterdam International Film Festival 2021.

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