JFF 2024 Film Review : My Broken Mariko (2nd of a series)

Here is the second installment of my JFF 2024 film review. This next film runs on a darker theme which involves suicide, child abuse and lots of cigarette smoking. 

My Broken Mariko is one of the diverse films featured during the recently concluded Japanese Film Festival Online 2024. As a live-action adaptation from the manga of the same title, this psychological drama delves on the story of two best friends and schoolmates Tomoyo Shiino and Mariko Ikagawa. Growing up, Tomoyo was a witness to Mariko's fractured soul. Being neighbors in a low-cost apartment complex, she would hear Mariko's tortured screams on a daily basis. Living with an extremely abusive and violent father took its psychological toll on the fragile Mariko who would often go to school with her face covered in bandages. It is her feeble attempt to hide bruises and blisters from the physical abuse that she routinely suffers. Tomoyo on the other hand is a premature cigarette smoker who learned to smoke in grade school. She tries fo hide her little vice by wearing strong perfume to mask the stubborn cigarette smoke clinging to her school uniform. Cigarette smoke is apparently a veil from where she could hide from the dysfunction that she sees in Mariko’s household. A kind and empathetic soul, Tomoyo has many times tried to save her friend from chronic domestic abuse but has not succeeded. 

Many years have passed and the two girls have grown into young adults with Tomoyo turning into an angsty, overworked office worker. After work, they would find time to bond over street food and share hopes, dreams and bucket lists like when they were still giggling schoolgirls.  Mariko shares her dream of living with Tomoyo (and a cat!) if neither of them gets married and they turn into wrinkly spinsters. 

One day, while deep in work, she hears the news on television that a woman has committed suicide by jumping from the 5th floor of an apartment. The woman turned out to be her friend, Mariko. Too stunned and shocked, Tomoyo abandons  her work and runs to the exit, much to the annoyance of her boss whom she nicknames "asshole boss" on her phone contact list. She runs to Mariko's address only to find the apartment already emptied out. She also heard that Mariko's body had been cremated and her ashes are in her parent's house in their old neighborhood complex. Mariko as a young girl had repeatedly tried to take her own life but this time she really succeeded. 

Tomoyo rushes home and gets into her bandit get-up to steal Mariko's ashes from her parent's highly dysfunctional household. She hides a kitchen knife in her bag just in case. She figures that by stealing Mariko's ashes, she will be able to liberate her friend from suffering even in the afterlife. After a violent scuffle witn Mariko’s dad, she was able to retrieve her friend’s ashes kept in a white box. She then goes on a train journey to a certain seaside town which is one of Mariko's wishlist of places to visit. Along the way, she stops at a noodle shop, ordering two big bowls of ramen-one for her and one for Mariko who in spirit is accompanying her. 

When she was almost near her destination, a motorcycle riding thug snatched her backpack which left her with no food and money. Luckily, some kind stranger (a hobbyist fisherman I presume) took pity on her and gave her money enough for overnight provisions and a train ride back to Tokyo.

While on top of a grassy hillside, Tomoyo goes on an emotional soliloquy expressing everything she wanted to say to Mariko--her grief and her loss of losing a best friend. Screaming into the wind, she questions why Mariko left her alone in the world when they had so many dreams yet unfulfilled. In throes of despair, Tomoyo suddenly lurches towards the edge of the hill to throw herself down into the craggy rocks below. The kind stranger who heard her tear-filled soliloquy saved her just in time before she could follow Mariko into the afterlife. In a distance, a young girl is running away from a man who apparently wanted to assault her. It triggered memories of Mariko's desperation to escape from domestic violence, from a life of relentless cruelty. Almost by impulse, she charges towards the man hitting his head with the box containing Mariko's ashes. The ashes unceremoniously get dispersed into the wind and Mariko's journey towards liberation is suddenly completed. Tomoyo's healing also begins.

Tomoyo is slightly injured and is accompanied by the kind stranger to a hospital clinic. She comes out wearing a crutch. While at the clinic, she also receives a heartwarming letter filled with profuse gratitude from the girl she saved. 

Mid day  comes and Tomoyo is ready to go home to Tokyo. The kind stranger sends her off at the train stop, giving her a box of delicious bento meal to fill her grawling tummy. He also gives her some comforting, parting words:

She returns to work and promptly hands in a resignation letter to her asshole boss who shredded the letter in front of her. It seems she would have to stay a little  bit longer in her soul sucking job before life throws her a better opportunity. The film ends with Tomoyo going back to her ramshackle flat, to the ordinary life post- Mariko. She finds a letter in her mailbox. It’s from the girl she saved in the seaside town. While reading, a slow smile lights up her face. We don’t know what the letter says but her dark room fills with hope. 

Of all the three and a half films I watched during the Japanese Film Festival this storyline hits a major nerve because some of the plot is similar to the story of my friend who passed away not to suicide but to a sudden, unexplained illness. Unlike in the movie,  she was not a childhood friend but a co-worker in a radio station that I used to work for. We became very good friends eventually, almost like soul sisters.  She was an old soul and a kindred spirit and we shared the same interest in cooking and other artistic pursuits. She would disappear for years and re-emerge suddenly. I would be like, “WTH, where have you been the past five years?” Just like Mariko, she was a product of emotional abuse and was made to feel unloved and unaccepted in her early life. Her spirit was also broken into shards. Life treated her so cruelly that her past was sadly more dramatic than the afternoon teleseryes I see on television.The most painful part is that after she resurfaced, she disappeared again and one day a mutual online friend messaged me that she passed away after New Year’s Day and her remains were immediately cremated. Unlike in the film My Broken Mariko, her ashes remained with her relatives somewhere in a far northern town. Her death left me with guilt that I could have saved her just like Tomoyo. I could have done a heist and scatter her ashes in the Strait of Guimaras. 

My Broken Mariko is one of those rare movies that allow you to get introspective about life and death- the-could-have beens and the should-have-beens. It offers the realization that life is a continuum and not just beginnings and endings. 

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