Review: “Aristocrats” Examines Social Class In Modern Day Tokyo

Japanese director Sode Yukiko examines female friendships and the gulfs between classes in "Aristocrats".

By , 27 Feb 21 07:00 GMT
Courtesy of IFFR.

Haibara Hanako (Kadowaki Mugi) is a wealthy Tokyoite. She is quiet and diffident, and her family is keen to discuss her future marriage prospects. By the end of dinner, her family has already lined up an eligible man for her to meet—with no input from her.

Tokioka Miki (Mizuhara Kiko) is the opposite. She’s from a small prefecture, with an unemployed father and a wastrel brother. Through hard work, Miki tests into the prestigious Keio University—but family circumstances demand she drop out. Instead of going back home, she takes matters into her own hands and works as a hostess, eventually working her way up to an IT job at an office. 

Through these women, Aristocrats reveals the invisible walls that one’s social class erects. “Tokyo is compartmentalized,” one character muses. “You only meet people from your own social class.” Indeed, while modernity and capitalism promises a world where people can easily move up and down the class ladder, Aristocrats asserts that class is more than just money. Echoing George Orwell’s thoughts that class consists of “manners and traditions learned…in childhood” that persist “till death”, Hanako, Miki, and others continually find themselves unable to escape the restraints that class placed on them.

Courtesy of IFFR.

Class Divisions

While Miki and Hanako live in different worlds, their connection to a man named Aoki Keichiro (Kora Kengo) brings them together. 

Keichiro is an up and coming politician who belongs to one of Japan’s most prominent political families. Aristocrats emphasizes the rigidity of his life because of his family background: he only visits restaurants that his family has been to before, and his grandfather decided his career path when he was a child. His marriage is also a family matter—as sociologist Sawako Shirahase says, marriage is key in continuing class structures from one generation to the next. As such, Keichiro marries Hanako to satisfy his family. However, it is clear that he feels little for her, and that he reserves the bulk of his affection for Miki, despite her being socially unsuitable due to her low-status background. 

Aristocrats frequently depicts the gulfs in communication the classes have with each other. In one scene, Hanako’s manicurist sets her up on a date with a working-class man. She finds herself unable to communicate with him; the man is similarly awkward, opting to instead make conversation with the manicurist who introduced them. In another, Miki has tea with a couple of upper class girls who talk about overseas trips while Miki sits in silence. 

The film emphasizes this theme by maintaining a strong sense of place. Austere traditional interiors and heavy social formalities define Hanako’s Tokyo; even something as simple as dining at a restaurant is an elaborate affair, with multiple courses and diffident waiters. In contrast, Miki’s world consists of cluttered homes filled with bric-a-brac and personal mementos. Conversation flows freely, with formalities reserved for business interactions, and meals taken at casual kissatens and izakayas

Ultimately, no one escapes the classes that they’re born into. However, each woman ends up finding a greater sense of agency by going into ventures with their female friends. Hanako finds fulfillment in pursuing a career managing her violinist friend, while Miki ends up working with a friend on a business venture. The film plays out its conclusion in a series of calm slices of each woman’s life. In this way, Aristocrats suggests that, while there is little an individual can do to move classes, there is always solace to be found in friendships, and agency to be found in charting one’s path within the confines of one’s class.

Courtesy of IFFR.

Social Expectations

Kadowaki Mugi is a standout as Hanako, bringing sensitivity, innocence, and quiet pain to her performance. While Hanako is brought up in privileged circumstances, it is clear via her alienated expressions that she is trapped. When Keichiro proposes to Hanako, Mugi renders her joy with childish naivete. One senses that Hanako is happy only because society told her, throughout her life, that she should be happy—because the height of achievement for a woman is to marry a wealthy and high status man. Her slow crumble into repressed pain and dull apathy, holding back her desire to pursue a career, alongside her trips to fertility clinics, are heartbreaking to behold. 

The parts of Aristocrats centered on Miki suffer in comparison. While Miki is nominally an outsider to the world of high society, she displays little discomfort in upscale situations. In one scene, she mingles with Keichiro and other wealthy Tokyoites at a New Year party, seeming perfectly natural and at home. While it’s possible that Miki is simply a greater social chameleon, her behavior is at odds with the dialogue, which continually states her discomfort and awe at the wealthy. Miki and her friends also state many of the movie’s central themes in explicit dialogue, which has the effect of rendering their characters hazy and indistinct. Aristocrats tells her class discomforts, rather than showing them— for instance, when having tea with high society girls, her friend whispers to her to not look so shocked at the prices, because they’re dining with aristocrats now. The scene already made it visually clear that they were dining with aristocrats, so the dialogue flattens the effect and comes across as unnatural.

Indeed, the heavy-handed dialogue is the film’s central weakness. When Hanako and Miki meet for the first time, Hanako expresses surprise that Miki’s family did not display dolls for Girl’s Day. If Aristocrats left it at that, the message would already be clear—Hanako and Miki are of different social classes, and celebrate holidays differently because of it. However, it went on to belabor the point, with Miki going on to talk about various other holidays that her family did not celebrate, and Hanako’s friend chiming in with shocked interjections. In another, Miki and her working class friend gaze at the glittering towers of the upscale parts of Tokyo, and remark that it was the vision of Tokyo they all aspired to, but ultimately couldn’t reach. While Aristocrats was based on a book, as a film these themes would be stronger if they weren’t so explicitly stated. As a result, the characters occasionally come across as mouthpieces.

Aristocrats is an enjoyable film with a compelling lead performance. The cinematography is spare and beautiful, abundant with shots that establish a strong sense of place. However, its clumsy dialogue leaves it toothless, especially when compared to the biting satire of other class-focused films such as Parasite. Ultimately, Aristocrats is content in depicting the class divides of Japanese society without making any sweeping statements, quietly lamenting the rigidity of class barriers while suggesting that the individuals have enough agency to seek happiness within their own social class. It refrains from stepping on anyone’s toes, and thus, renders itself a congenial if somewhat unmemorable melodrama. 

• • •

Aristocrats (Japanese: あのこは貴族)—Japan. Dialog in Japanese. Directed by Yukiko Sode. First released 2021. Running time 2hr 4min. Starring Kadowaki Mugi, Mizuhara Kiko.

Aristocrats screened at the 2021 International Film Festival Rotterdam.

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