Dr Jessica Hemmings
“I made a film which is a little bit weird,” explains the Director of Wool 100%, Mia Tominaga, in a post-production interview in Japanese. “The power of imagination is wonderful and given to only humans. I want to think that the imagination in your head exists and made this film. So I want you to watch it using the power of imagination.”
If your not feeling up to evoking all the powers of your imagination, it might be best to watch something else and come back to this film when you are feeling a bit more like enjoying a flight of fancy. Released with English subtitles, this Japanese film follows the lives of two elderly sisters, Ume (Kyoko Kishida) and Kame (Kazuko Yoshiyuki), and the disruptive arrival of a young girl (Ayu Kitaura) to their eccentric but comfortable lives. The latter is cast as feral sort with a fearsome obsession with knitting. Why she knits is the question that remains just out of reach throughout the film.
In his review for the New York Times, Matt Zoller Seitz notes that the film “builds its aesthetic upon fairy tale conventions and dream logic.” While the narrative provides considerable food for knitting thought, it is ultimately open-ended. In spite of this, there are concrete passages that do not defy interpretation. A red wool yarn (umbilical perhaps) first trips up the two childless sisters while out on one of their regular scavenging-for-unusual-objects trips. Attached to this very literal narrative yarn is a girl who proceeds to spend the rest of the film knitting and unraveling a red covering, howling in frustration at each moment the garment is completed. This very tangible cycle repeats across the film with associations to fertility and menstruation, but also a compulsive desire to create rather than conclude. There is an urgency and focus to this production that seems to suggest something other than knitting for the pleasure of creation, but the reason is left unconfirmed.
Other peculiar readings are also potentially present. The wordless girl enters the sisters’ home much like a cuckoo, resting and feeding in the nest she has convincingly poached from others. Much like the cuckoo’s cunning tactics, the two women seem unable to determine that this arrival is not their own offspring. This confusion culminates in a feeding scene in which the women, desperate to bring some peace back to their nest, feed the girl by lobbing all sorts of food into her gaping greedy mouth.
Before you think you have really lost the plot, the film switches to animation. Black and white drawings reveal a foreboding male character behind the bars and further fragments of the character’s history can be read in a short series of scenes played out with small hand held dolls. Framed by the camera and then a dolls’ house, these naive sequences offer fragments of the sisters’ history, including the death of their mother in childbirth, which may explain why the two are left alone to fend for themselves. But they are also dream/nightmare sequences that could as easily be interpreted as the wanderings of a sleepy mind or a story told from beyond the screen frame.
Ultimately, the evocative red thread that wends its way through this magical film guides the tale but does not ever conclude in a neat, conventional narrative knot. Visually the film screen provides a canvas for the red thread, often seen zigzagging across the frame as the sisters crisscross the suburban landscape on their daily trips. While a strong feminist sensibility of make do and mend is evident, it is full of creative rather than purely functional potential. As a result, knitting and its ability to make and unmake provides a convincing symbol for fertility and, potentially, also trauma.
Tominaga admits that in an earlier script version “the wool . . . went to the ocean and traveled around the world. It sometimes became someone’s skirt and scarf etc, and then it becomes Hironosuke’s [the film’s one male character] briefs after all. After he dies, it’s undone and dumped again and it’s repeated over and over.” Thread, in this director’s eyes, has the potential to take on many lives, to be reconfigured and evolve in an endless string of suggestions. Take your pick; all conjure magical tales that begin with a simple thread.
Selvedge magazine (2008: 51-55)