It’s New Years Eve and Hanako Haibara is in a romantic rut. Recently dumped by her boyfriend, Hanako’s leisurely mid-20’s life has taken a turn for the pursuit of a long-term partner. After years of anticipation, she has finally given in to the tradition of arranged marriage. In Yukiko Sode’s latest venture into the troublesome moral dilemmas of romance and human connection, Aristocrats play its greatest strong suit as a standard melodrama. The film, for better and for worse, is one of the first mid 2010’s period-pieces of its time. A film that excels in the aesthetics, mindset, and cultural identity of the 2016 era the cultural connotation of Aristocrats is subtly explored through a lack of style. 

The irony is that there is nothing stylistically flashy about Aristocrats. It’s a project completely consumed by simplistic pans, a muted colour palette, and stationary locations that rely specifically on dialogue and minuscule character interactions. In a film dependent on Hanako’s spiritual journey, Sode articulates the film’s narrative into five distinct chapters. Highlighting the twisty narrative interconnection of all the supporting cast, the film packs a modest punch in its tonal delivery and execution. It’s a sophisticated feature; a film that adorns its mumblecore-esque stylings with great dignity and flare. 

For the most part, Aristocrats succeeds in creating a lavish atmosphere of low stakes and vibe-oriented drama. However, it’s the subliminal commentary at play that creates a surprising disparity between narrative and theme. It’s a film that merely highlights the lavish, artificial lifestyle of the upper class, with barely anything nuanced to specifically state. One could even argue that the film is less of a critique of the aristocrat lifestyle and more of an unintentional endorsement. Sode’s intentions with this commentary is simply unclear in its promiscuous intentions. Especially when the film concludes on an abrupt finale, the film ends with much less answered thematically than one would hope for. 

For the most part, Aristocrats succeeds in creating an atmosphere of earning and romantic longing. While occasionally twisty in its reveals, the film finds its footing with its warm-hearted characters in a sea of deceitful malaise. A malaise that tests Hanako on her journey of self discovery, spanning years of self-questioning. A malaise that has become staggeringly more poignant in its execution with the introduction of new lockdown measures and isolation protocol. A film consumed by humanity — a visual reminder that we will eventually prevail, regardless of how menial the task is. In the case of Aristocrats, it’s the search for a long-term romantic partner. In the case of director Yukiko Sode, it’s completing a relatively compelling drama. 

Dir: Sode Yukiko

Scr: Sode Yukiko

Cast: Kadowaki Mugi, Mizuhara Kiko, Kora Kengo

DOP: Sasaki Yasuyuki

Country: Japan

Year: 2021

Runtime: 124 minutes

Aristocrats premiered at this year’s historic Rotterdam Film Festival edition, as part of the Big Screen Competition program. The film is currently seeking international distribution.