The diverse selection of motion pictures of the 2022 New York Asian Film Festival allows audiences to look back on the years we’ve recently traversed. The Japanese film Ribbon is an excellent example, bringing to the screen a whimsically inspiring coming-of-age story about a young art student in the midst of the Covid crisis. What wreaked havoc throughout the world, forcing society to stop, serves as the inspiration for a magnificent work of art in the film written and directed by Non.
The filmmaker is also the lead actress in this cinematic tale that uses a touch of surrealism to allow a multitude of ribbons to flow throughout the story and add a delicate, poetic element. In pop-culture, awareness ribbons are symbols meant to show support or raise consciousness for a cause. In this film they have the same purpose, as they echo the emotions of the protagonist throughout her artistic and personal flowering.
The story is set in 2020 during the the middle of the Corona virus global epidemic. Lockdown has forced universities to close and students to stay at home in isolation. Art student Itsuka Asakawa (Non) has her graduation exhibition canceled and is forced to take home the piece which she had been working on for over a year. She struggles to keep up with routine and creativity, as she receives occasional visits from her family members, who are all overwhelmed by the phobia of the virus. Her mother (Misayo Haruki) shows up dressed up in layers and tries to tidy up the home of her messy daughter, but takes it too far, almost comprising the young artist’s work. Her father (Daikichi Sugawara) arrives at Itsuka’s house with an amusingly bizarre instrument that should aid with social distancing. Her sister, Mai (Karin Ono), seems to be the one who has a strongest understanding of the young girl’s state of mind, and even helps her identify a former classmate from middle-school, Tanaka (Daichi Watanabe), whom Itsuka regularly crosses at the park while they are both wearing masks at a distance. But above all it is Hirai (Rio Yamashita), who bonds the most with Itsuka in this pandemic circumstance. She is her friend from art college, with whom they will embark upon an adventure to claim back the artistic future that Covid seems to have completely annihilated.
The power of this artsy tale lies within the difficulty of acceptance. Itsuka’s mixed media collages — that often use ribbons — are mistakenly considered as garbage by her mother. The frustration of an artist whose interior world gets misunderstood and denied is overwhelming, because the painter feels she has failed in conveying her artistic expression. But for one person who does not grasp the creative plight, another one comes along and nonchalantly gets it, effortlessly and wholeheartedly. This is Tanake, who had immediately appreciated Itsuka’s artistry when they were children, and his encouragement prompted her to absorb herself in painting.
Non’s directorial debut is a call for action that can be summed up as ‘Give us our art back,’ since the protagonist reclaims her identity after the Covid-19 pandemic deprives her of the channel through which she can express herself. The revival of art students who have been robbed of their future is brilliantly displayed with utter simplicity, but equal fortitude as a young woman breaks out of a wretched situation in an invigorating way.
The whirlpool of emotions that intertwine and entangle like ribbons come to life thanks to the special effects team comprised by Shinji Higuchi and Katsuro Onoue, who have both previously worked on Shin Godzilla. Ribbon art serves as the expression of the characters’ true feelings, that at times can be sharp and pointed, whilst in other occasions they will dance gracefully through thin air.
The pandemic classified stage performances, art exhibitions, and several other forms of cultural entertainment as non-essential activities. But just as much as the people working in those industries, the consumers realised how these fields are crucial for human existence. Ribbon proves this effectively, and reminds us all that no matter how troubling the times may be if there is the will, we can always find a way to express our fullest potential.
Images provided by Ribbon Film Partners
Final Grade: B+