(Warning: there is an NSFW pic in this review. So sue me...)
At this year's International Film Festival Rotterdam there were two Japanese films nominated for the Tiger Awards. One was "Autumn Adagio" (reviewed here) and the other one was "Miyoko", a biopic about the famous manga artist Abe Shinichi which focuses on the relationship he had with his most famous model, his muse, girlfriend and later his wife: the titular Miyoko.
In the early seventies, Abe Shinichi is a struggling manga artist living in the artists' quarter of Tokyo. He sleeps free of rent in the apartment of his girlfriend Miyoko, a barmaid who is also the couple's sole source of income. Abe keeps obsessively drawing pictures of her, and although he is manic and demanding she obviously enjoys being the center of his attention.
Doubting his own talent as an artist and his skill as a writer, Abe decides to create a manga about his time with Miyoko, a diary of sorts. This work candidly portrays Abe's daily life, his feelings for Miyoko and all of the ups and downs in their relationship, including his once-off infidelity and his growing addiction to alcohol. The diary actually gets picked up for publication and will later turn out to have been his biggest masterpiece, cementing his relation with Miyoko even though his behavior grows more and more bizar...
The film starts with a selection of artwork panels from Abe Shinichi's famous graphic novel "Miyoko Asagaya Kibun". You see panels from the novel fade in and out of real footage of Miyoko's room. It is a nice opening: fans of Abe's artwork will appreciate the amount of detail that went into recreating the surroundings, while novices (like me) can judge for themselves why his artwork is considered to be so special. This approach also introduces the viewer immediately to Miyoko, or at least the Miyoko that Abe had in mind while writing the comic.
But instead of a straight adaptation of the novel, director Tsubota Yoshifumi opted to make a biopic about its creator Abe Shinichi. As the book is a very autobiographic one this meant that Tsubota could cherry-pick the parts of the comic he liked best, yet still had enough freedom to add a third act describing the further life of Abe Shinichi. Because a lot happened after Abe stopped with his manga-diary: he married his muse Miyoko and left Tokyo to start a family with her. Later he developed a serious form of schizophrenia which left him mostly delusional and debilitated, and the film also covers the effects this had both on Abe's art and his relation with Miyoko.
And while most of this is shown in a pretty straightforward fashion, I was surprised to also see some impressively weird dream-sequences in which Abe's abstract way of thinking and sense of impending doom is portrayed.
However, that is a lot of story for a movie that's only 86 minutes long and it comes as no surprise that we never really get a handle on the characters of Abe and Miyoko. This is not by fault of the acting: Abe Shinichi is played by Kenji Mizuhashi and alternates appropriately between being stoic and being manic. Trouble is... he's never really scary though, which makes you wonder why his friends agree to some of his wilder whims instead of just smacking him in the face. Miyoko fares better: Marie Machida almost literally throws herself at the part, a very demanding role as the real Miyoko constantly switched between being submissive and taking control.
Apart from being the emotional core of the movie Marie also has to show some surprisingly graphic nudity, for director Tsubota deliberately follows Abe Shinichi's explicit style. A good example of this is that for most of the movie Miyoko's pubic hair is carefully kept off-frame, as Shinichi originally didn't show any in his drawings (which would instantly have become unsellable). But for his latest works he abandoned those Japanese sensibilities, and so does the movie. It never turns into a true "pinku" movie as the nudity is not repeated every ten minutes or so, but it certainly went a bit further than I expected.
In the end the film reaches the present-day Abe and Miyoko (the real Shinichi is shown in the credits, along with lots of his artwork) but because this is a biopic of a couple who are currently quite stable we never get a big conclusion. And both Abe and Miyoko remain enigmas.
While "Miyoko" is definitely an interesting biopic it never quite turns into a gripping one. Abe's obsessions are shown but never explained (no clear link with his latter-day schizophrenia is ever established), and why Miyoko keeps taking care of him through thick and thin also remains vague.
However, sometimes being "interesting" is good enough, especially with a movie that is too short to wear out its welcome. The Rotterdam audience rewarded the film with a 3.8 out of 5.