Japanese drama isn't so much about revolution as it is about evolution. It's by far one of Japan's most prolific genres, though very few films ever break out of their national borders. And yet, there is a lot of quality there if you know where to look (or get lucky enough to hit an underexposed gem). You'd think a film from one of Japan's biggest up-and-coming stars would be blessed with a bit more international exposure, yet Non's Ribbon seems to be passing by without causing any ripples. It's a shame, as there's a lot to love here, especially when you're in the mood for a warmer, softer film.
If you have no idea who Non is, you probably haven't been following Japanese pop/film culture too closely. She's been making a name for herself these past couple of years, exploring several creative outlets. Ribbon is the project that ties everything together. Non wrote, directed, and headlined this little COVID-set drama, infusing the entire project with her own, very recognizable branding. The result is a film that lives and breathes her signature and fans of her work will surely be delighted. For others, it might just be a little too sweet and/or frilly, but you have to at least appreciate her dedication.
Ribbon fits in well with other Japanese dramas, in that it is a pretty quiet, subdued film with somewhat socially awkward characters. There is no big, loud drama, the problems characters face feel minor and there is no real sense of urgency. While that may sound uneventful, it brings a certain realness and relatability to the film that is often missing from other films in the genre. Ribbon does feel slightly more modern compared to many of its contemporaries, as it is set during the COVID lockdown, and there are some neat fantastical elements to make the film a bit more dreamy, but the overall impact remains rather limited.
Non plays Itsuka, a young artist in her final year. For four years straight she has been working on a painting, but then the pandemic hits. Classes are suspended and the big presentation where everyone was hoping to showcase their signature piece is canceled. Sitting alone at home, she tries to finish her work, but her inspiration is fleeting. Visits from her parents only seem to aggregate her, her classmates are just as clueless, and she suspects a strange boy might be stalking her. But as she slowly comes to terms with the situation, Itsuka's life seems to take a turn for the better.
Japanese dramas rarely experiment with cinematography, instead, they aim for more familiar moods, trying to impress with skillful execution. Ribbon's visuals clearly chase that early morning vibe, where colors are mostly washed out pastels, yet bursting with the promise of vibrancy. The camera work is floaty and soft, and the ribbon sequences, while light on CG, are well done and add a dash of mystery. The costumes and set design/artwork deserve a mention too. It all adds up to a very attractive film, though within the expected boundaries of the genre.
The music is quite in line with what you'd expect from a film like this too, though slightly more electronic-based than I anticipated. That means pianos and strings are replaced with ambient synths, but the overall tone and vibe of the music is still very light and tranquil. It's a perfectly lovely score that aptly captures the mood of the film, even helps to guide it in places, but it's not very distinct or memorable. The slightly more modern touches are appreciated, and it would be nice to see more films taking that little extra risk (no matter how minor that risk actually is), but it's not enough to set it apart.
Writers/directors who headline their own films always take a big risk, but Non clearly knew where she wanted to go with the film and her character. It's nice to see she didn't necessarily need to be the most likable or coolest of the bunch. She does have that typical way of turning somewhat annoying quirks into loveable traits, and she plays around with that quite a bit here. The rest of the cast is pretty great too, though pretty much all of them are there in supporting roles, as they get assigned one or two segments max. to assist Itsuka in her journey.
The struggling artist is a popular theme (write about what you know) and the COVID angle doesn't really add anything substantial to Itsuka's challenges. Ribbon isn't a film that treads new ground, even the evolution in Itsuka's character is something I've seen plenty of times before. But the presentation gives it a very pleasant edge and makes it easier to sympathize with her character. Ultimately, Itsuka's journey is one worth joining and even though many of her trials and tribulations are geared at younger (20-something) audiences, they do serve as a nice refresher for those of us who might have already forgotten about them.
Ribbon is a perfect film for a confident artist who wants to explore her brand, skills and talent in a cinematic setting. It stays within expectations of what the genre is supposed to be, but adds unique touches on top to differentiate it from so many others in the genre. The loveable characters, the stylish score and cinematography, and the slightly fantastical moments all add up to a very likeable and capable drama without any real weak points. It's a solid foundation for possible future ventures, though Non will have to find a stronger and more unique voice if she wants to become a fully-fledged film director.