Nobuteru Uchida’s Odayaka boasts a palpable sense of unease from its very first shots, inside a meager Tokyo apartment complex, of the final tremors of the Great Eastern Japan Earthquake of 2011. What ensues is a parallel character study of two tenants of that complex who are swallowed up by personal crisis and existential dread after the quake, each further set on edge by radio, Internet, and television stories about trade winds carrying nuclear waste from power plants damaged or destroyed during in the disaster’s fallout.
The younger of the two tenants, Saeko (Kiki Sugino), a newly single mother, responds to the panic-inducing rumors—and by extension, her husband’s abandonment—by persistently questioning the safety precautions at the school her daughter, Kiyomi (Ami Watanabe), attends. Her perpetual panic and insecurity gets her in trouble with the school and, more distinctly, with another parent (Makiko Watanabe), the wife of a criticized official. From this, Ushida works up an atmosphere of suppression against Saeko’s vaguely validated concerns, which includes hostile phone calls and a number of at-school confrontations.
But as conceived by Sugino and Uchida, Saeko is defined by her delicate mental and emotional state, and the effects of those who take umbrage with her feelings are dulled by a lack of clear change in the character. The ways in which the earthquake and the reactions at school have reshaped Saeko’s persona are crucial to the film’s emotional impact, and yet there’s little sense of the mother, wife, and woman Saeko used to be. Indeed, with the exception of a few outlier moms at the school, Saeko’s shrilly conveyed opinions are only shared by Yukako (Yukiko Shinohara), her married neighbor, and to far milder degree. Yukako is quiet and more unsettling in her reaction to the quake: she begins to insist her husband, Tatsuya (Takeshi Yamamoto), start looking for a job transfer away from Tokyo in the days following the event. As intermittently disturbing as Yukako’s experiences are, there’s a sense that her more subdued storyline is kept at a quieter volume to offer a direct contrast with the screaming melodrama of Saeko’s descent into madness.
As it hits its grim climax, the film nearly invokes the lacerating life stories of Lee Chang-dong, but the filmmakers labor clearly and unconvincingly to quantify a crudely hopeful ending. If there’s a sense that either of these storylines would have made for better singular films on their own, there’s still the matter of Uchida’s clunky sense of storytelling, which feels burdened by an overtly calculated sense of structure and very cheap redemption. At the heart of it all, Odayaka attests to a weirdly conservative viewpoint, that of women only truly being of the world when they claim or reclaim their roles as mothers. Its depiction of those who worry about corporate and governmental faults and lies is hardly more palatable. Carried almost entirely by the dreamlike lensing by Uchida and DP Shinichi Tsunoda, Odayaka is nevertheless only truly memorable in its bashful cynicism.