Ribbon Review: A Beguiling Coming-of-Age

Toronto Japanese Film Festival 2022

These last couple years have really sucked. Beyond the impending doom of death and sickness, precious time has been taken from all of us. For a younger generation, those finishing school and officially starting adulthood, the years lost are arguably more critical than for those of us already “settled” in life. First-time director, Non (のん) explores the frustration and grief over this loss in her film Ribbon – a sweet and quirky coming-of-age tale set in unprecedented times.

Non plays Itsuka Asakawa, an art student in her final semester. A job with a studio awaits her upon graduation, but before then her and her classmates are looking forward to displaying their graduation projects in an end-of-year exhibition. When the world shuts down due to COVID-19, the exhibition is cancelled and students are told to take their projects home, which results in many having to destroy their creations due to lack of storage space.

Itsuka lives in a small studio apartment in isolation where she’s able to keep her large, unfinished, painting. During the country-wide lockdown, Itsuka keeps to herself, fails to find motivation to continue painting, wakes up past noon, goes on a daily walk to the park, and despite all the free time, can’t seem to find a minute to tidy up.

Taking a semi-satirical look at the paranoia and heightened precautions that gripped our psyches, Non finds the humour in an otherwise dark time. This is best exemplified when Itsuka is visited by her parents. Her mother (Misayo Haruki) arrives decked out in layers and layers of makeshift PPE, profusely sweating but keen on keeping safe. Her father (Daikichi Sugawara) arrives with a literal 6 foot pole to ensure social distancing is kept, despite being stopped by the police. Ribbon has the benefit of being released with enough distance from the lockdown stages of the pandemic that we’re able to laugh at our anxieties, and the humour Non instills is never flippant nor insensitive.

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The heart of the film, though, lies in the frustrations of Itsuka and her classmate Hirai (Rio Yamashita). Non’s performance, direction, and writing all bring to life the sheer helplessness and resentment this generation felt when the world shut down, particularly those who endeavour to pursue a career in the arts. She gracefully touches on the mundanity and the loss of spark 20-somethings normally have with the world at their feet.

As a directorial debut, Non excels. Save for a few moments of excess which contribute to a longer than necessary runtime, Non’s ability to weave a strong narrative with a whimsical aesthetic is commendable. Her use of score is especially delightful with a Parisian styled tune used for the lighter moments and a string heavy composition (almost horror genre-esque) to punctuate scenes of anger.

Ribbon is far from the first film to use the pandemic years as a backdrop, but it’s one of the few that does so successfully, in large part due to its authenticity and humour. It balances the severity of the situation with a light-hearted tone very well and is a gentle reminder for all of us that while much has been lost in this time, new purpose can be found in our darkest hours.

Ribbon screened as part of the 2022 Toronto Japanese Film Festival. Head here for more from this year’s festival.

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