There is more than meets the eye in Toda Akihiro’s The Name, an odd but curiously absorbing mystery drama that appears deceptively simple from the outset. Within its modest trappings, this Japanese indie raises some thoughtful existential questions about personal identity and the masks we wear in society to protect ourselves.
Masao Nakamura (Tsuda Kanji) is a 45-year-old divorcee living alone in an unkempt countryside house. He adopts false aliases to get by, each time appearing as a different person with a different name to friends and co-workers. Even his job as a factory worker in a recycling plant hinges upon a long-standing claim of having to support a sick wife in hospital. But just as his boss is about to discover his lies, a teenage schoolgirl (Komai Ren) pops up at his workplace and professes to be his daughter, momentarily sparing him from being fired.
Her name is Emiko Hayama (Ren Komai), and she’s here to stick around Masao with no explanation granted. Despite Masao’s initial scepticism at her sudden intrusion into his life, the two become companions, having meals together and engaging in activities like bowling and fishing.
It’s difficult to figure out where The Name is going thanks to the film’s cleverly structured, three-part non-linear narrative that introduces Masao and Emiko separately as standalone characters, as seen through their singular perspectives. The first section looks at Masao, a man who lives a largely solitary existence otherwise sustained by casual hook-ups and social gatherings, during which he spins elaborate tales of wealth and family without blinking an eye. An awkward encounter with his ex-wife at a party later, however, reveals that his lies are perhaps a coping mechanism for buried sorrow. “You need disguises as a grown-up. The world doesn’t just accept you as you are,” muses Masao to Emiko, a painful acknowledgement that faking things is the easier way out when one fails to live up to their ideals.
Emiko insists that “it’s no fun being someone else,” though she too has things she’d like to escape from. The film’s second section shows Emiko’s life in a cold household, where she assumes a maternal role cleaning and cooking – her irresponsible mother, young enough to pass off as her sister, only speaks to her daughter to stock up on groceries. And even though the free-spirited teenager seeks refuge in her school’s social setting, her relationship with her best friends become strained after a boy fancied by one of them pursues Emiko instead.
The Name’s unusual structure is effective in maintaining a sense of mystery around the dual intersecting arcs of its leads, teasing audiences to piece the puzzle together by themselves. Why is Emiko so fascinated with Masao, and is their encounter really all that random? It’s only in the third act that Akihiro’s carefully-sprinkled trail of breadcrumbs really comes together, as the individual narratives of Masao and Emiko collide. What emerges is a double identity crisis of two lonely souls, each hiding their own set of secrets behind unassuming facades.
A subplot involving Emiko performing in her school’s drama play appropriately underscores the struggles of differentiating your “real” persona from the public faces we put on and take off in daily life. What surfaces is the paradox of realism and authenticity in theatrical acting – a demanding drama senior chides Emiko for her unconvincing character portrayal during rehearsal, because she isn’t “being herself” and is holding back her “true” emotions. There’s also the paradox of self-trust and self-actualisation: what should you believe in, when an outsider claims to know you better than you think you know yourself?
Like the outward pretenses its characters assume, The Name excels in keeping up a front till the very end. Desaturated visuals, with a lean towards warm colours, add to the film’s muted charm, alongside a surprisingly poignant coda that celebrates the possibilities of forming connections, even in the most banal of circumstances. The tune of Mozart’s iconic “Rondo Alla Turca”, which Emiko routinely hums throughout the film, will be sure to linger long after.
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