I don’t think I’ll ever get enough of movies about middle-aged people reflecting on their pasts before having some huge epiphany about the way they’ve been living their lives. Admittedly, some of them walk that thin line between profound and purposely convoluted—but the Netflix film “We Couldn’t Become Adults” (dir. Yoshihiro Mori) thankfully fits the former rather than the latter.
Following the memories of forty-something graphic designer Sato (Mirai Moriyama), this film captures the loneliness and melancholy that comes with feeling as though you haven’t done much with your life. As such, the film basically takes us back in time, starting with the most recent years and going backwards as we examine exactly how Sato spent his prior years. He goes through some relationships with women whom he never plans to marry, which, at least to his credit, he tells them later in the relationship. When asked why he says no to marriage, his answer is always the same: “It just seems so ordinary.”
But then we go deeper into Sato’s memories, back to why he truly is as sad as he is, and why he seems to look down on the “ordinary” so much, despite being very ordinary himself. Enter Kaori (Sairi Ito), a young woman who meets Sato when he’s 21 years old. They bond with one another initially over letters regarding a shared admired artist before eventually meeting each other in person, thus starting what seems to be an enviably happy relationship. Kaori is adventurous compared to Sato’s more reserved self, intelligent with a clichéd tragicness in the way that many of these female love interests for sad male characters of this genre tend to be.
A good portion of this movie is all about Sato’s falling in love and eventual grief over the loss of this relationship with Kaori. Like a telescope coming into focus, you start to make sense of all the parts of Kaori that Sato carries into his later adult years: his quiet “it just seems so ordinary” comments are all nods to Kaori’s own determination to be extraordinary, his knowledge of certain philosophies goes back to Kaori and if this movie were made any less beautifully or thoughtfully than it was, I’d say that this whole hang-up with an ex from 20 years ago is pathetic. (Like, come on man. Move on!)
But by some lovely miracle, the characters and the movie as a whole are crafted in a way that never feels overbearingly pretentious or moody. As each shot—each memory—grows steadily brighter in saturation and happiness, the audience themselves are drawn into a past where the future still feels hopeful. One particularly beautiful shot that captures this theme is when Kaori and Sato lay together in their favorite room of a love motel, one that has a ceiling of stars. When Kaori says, “your body is filled with words waiting to go to heaven. I’m sure of it… you’re interesting,” the audience won’t feel as though she’s only speaking to Sato. In that briefly captured brightness, the audience too will feel a glimmer of hope that’s so often characteristic of youth, that perhaps you can become something, and it’s only just waiting to take form.
This is what ultimately makes present Sato—in his 40s, still not feeling particularly interesting—sad. He hasn’t become that “interesting” someone that he quietly wishes himself to be, nor the person Kaori might have wanted him to be. Instead, in the short moment the audience finds him in the present, he’s still wondering exactly how he got to this ordinary life.
Whether the movie gives us a satisfying conclusion to that kind of wonderment is an open question. As typical of this genre of movie, I suspect that viewers will feel differently about the film in varying moments of their lives. Perhaps the perspective of a college senior such as myself will change when I revisit this film as a late twenty-something or thirty-something or a forty-something myself. But for now, as I have not yet hit my forty-something years, I can say that the movie, in its odd way, left me with some hope. As Sato walks out to the new dawn, there will be at least a few viewers who feel as though they’re ready to walk out with him: still confused, still feeling perhaps a little lost, but maybe just one iota more grounded than they had been two hours ago.