Friday, June 6, 2008

REVIEW: The Milkwoman - Akira Ogata (2005)

Reviewed by Chris MaGee

How do you enter into a person’s head? Get into their hidden longings, their secret dreams, even the day-to-day buzz of thoughts and sensations? For a filmmaker to accomplish such a feat is nearly impossible, but director Akira Ogata masterfully takes us into not only the mind of a lonely spinster in his 2005 sophomore film “The Milkwoman”, but he also weaves her intensely personal story of unrequited love for a married man into the fabric of the equally fascinating lives of the film’s supporting characters.

Outwardly Minako Ohba (Yuko Tanaka) hasn’t achieved much in her 50 years. She’s dedicated herself to a dying profession, being a milkwoman. Up before dawn she goes unseen through the small city that she’s lived in all her life, dropping bottles of milk off for people that she knows, but no one really knows her. She has no friends besides her novelist aunt and her co-workers at the local grocery store where she picks up shifts as a cashier. She has never married, in fact there’s a strong possibility she’s still a virgin. How could this have happened to someone who is obviously intelligent and attractive? Despite what she may say about having given up hope of ever being in a relationship it seems that she’s waiting, but for what?

The answer to that question, the secret that keeps Minako going, is known to only one person, a dying woman who can’t even drink the milk that Minako delivers to her home every morning. Yoko is living out her last days confined to a hospital bed in her living room being tended to by her dutiful husband Keita (Ittoku Kishibe), a case worker with the Children’s Aid Department. She knows that like Minako her husband has a secret life, a self that even despite their years together he shares with no one. At the heart of that life is Minako. She and Keita met 35 years before when Minako’s mother and Keita’s father were having an extramarital affair with each other. While Keita and Minako followed suit and dated briefly their teenaged romance came to an abrupt end when their unfaithful parents died in a traffic accident. Did they perceive this as some kind of karmic return, a warning against following their own feelings for each other? That we never know, but what Yoko knows and what Ogata shows us through subtle use of voice over, flashbacks, and Minako’s written thoughts that scroll across the screen is that Keita’s and Minako’s feelings for each other have never died; and now facing the end of her life Yoko wants to see these two lonely people continue on with theirs.

I was a huge fan of Akitra Ogata’s first film, 2000’s “Boy’s Choir” and I doubted friends who told me that he’d far surpassed that story of the loss of boyhood innocence with “The Milkwoman”, but they were absolutely right. From the first minutes of the film when a 15-year-old Minako writes her adult self a letter, admonishing her to “stick to her dreams” I found myself with a lump in my throat. How many of us have wished we could speak to ourselves years in the future or years in the past, to counsel, warn, or remind ourselves of what’s truly important? But it isn’t just that youthful incarnation of Minako that illustrates the question of “How could my life have been different?” that’s at the heart of “The Milkwoman”. Ogata and screenwriter Kenji Aoki use the relationships of Keita and Yoko, Minako’s aunt who cares for her senile husband, the young mother who neglects her children and flashbacks of Minako’s mother’s affair with Keita’s father to show us the endless possibilities, both wonderful and terrible, that can occur when we get up the courage to love and be loved.

“The Milkwoman” is a contemporary masterpiece and it’s a crime that it hasn’t been made available domestically on DVD yet while every 70’s pinku exploitation film gets hauled out of the vaults. If you can get your hands on a copy I hope you treasure the experience of watching it as much as I did.

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