Length: 1 x 60 minute movie
Genre: Romance, sci-fi, ecchi
Year of release: 2019
I’ve alluded to it before in other reviews and pieces on my blog, but I think it is counter-productive for a critic to give away too much of their preferences. Gushing doesn’t mean anything if something is tailor-made, you know? So, excuse me while I take a breather, because Fragtime is very much up my street as a yuri romance, a genre-piece hitting all the right notes that I want to see. I’ve got to take a step back and figure out if the giddiness I felt after finishing this movie is just my preferences or if the movie was actually any good.
As a major fan of the genre, I need to start by saying that yuri is so much more than just ‘Japanese content about lesbian or extremely close female relationships’. Because of its roots – a hodgepodge of the early female ‘Class S’ Japanese authors coming into their own at a time of women obsessed with the all-female tezuka acting troupe – the genre has accumulated all sorts of tropes making it stand out from other romances of other sexualities; tone and atmosphere are key to the genre. And, despite the racier, even magical-cum-sci-fi concept, Fragtime has mastered the genre’s iconic trappings.
The core of it is that Moritani is a nervous girl who panics at the thought of social interaction, and uses her unusual power to stop time for three minutes to run away. In the moment, something possesses her to approach the pretty girl she’s interested in, Murakami, and, well, look up her skirt. Usually this results in me detesting the protagonist, but she won me over the course of the movie, which is her hanging out with this girl – in a move that surprises us all, because time isn’t stopped for Murakami. She catches out the peeping tom and blackmails and teases her into an unusual friendship.
Despite being the ‘perfect girl’, revered by classmates, Murakami isn’t quite what she seems. This is one of many tropes that yuri works tend to employ, showing us that the ‘perfect girl’ image is preventing women being true to themselves. Throughout the movie, Murakami acts purely in the interest of others, which is what begins to make the relationship she forms with Moritani a difficult one – the teasing goes to a physical level as she undresses randomly in the classroom in an almost exhibitionist display for Moritani’s eyes only; she kisses her just in front of the school nurse while time is frozen, and, although they are ‘dating’, they only ever seem to share time within the frozen time space. Through the movie, we’ve got to wonder what Murakami’s feelings are, while we’re blindsided by Moritani’s euphoria.
It’s in the carefully handled tone where Fragtime finds its success. Ephemeral youth with a strong hint of melodrama is a key aspect of almost all yuri works and has been for years, and Fragtime employs this with full force, taking the time to show crowds passing by, wide-shots of the classroom and focusing on the aural to express loneliness. Fragtime plays with a huge range of volume, blaring gorgeous string arrangements to express Moritani’s highs, deafening silence to punctuate her lows. The humour of Fragtime is more than one would expect of the tone but less than the concept; it fits in short, occasional spurts of goofiness and sharp retorts, cutting through the tension to create these charming, memorable moments between the girls. Visual imagery seeps into the avant garde with, frankly, quite blunt metaphoric images of stars and hourglasses to emphasise the concept of time that is so key to the movie’s message.
Being knee-deep in tropes like this requires a reassessment of how the tropes got there in the first place. This, too, has become somewhat of a trope, with many yuri works deconstructing the ephemeral and finding it wanting. Feminist discourse over the years has found the temporal aspects of these high-school ‘close-friendships’ to be harmful to real-life lesbians, suggesting that they will ‘grow out’ of those feelings. So the restriction of Moritani and Murakami’s relationship to ‘frozen time’ comes across as a much intended metaphor, such that you’re just waiting for one of them to wake up and break their relationship into the real, moving world and legitimise it. I won’t break how this happens, but it’s the beautifully touching moment you can expect.
But, for all its merits as a genre-piece, Fragtime is so immersed in tropes that it may not seem a standout in the genre off the back of its interesting ideas. I am of the opinion that the standard for the yuri genre is naturally high, with tonal consistency and social commentary embedded deep into its roots, such that it may not seem like much of the praise I’m giving to its intentions is much of a selling-point. Yuri fanatics may even see similarities to other works; the long-time mega-fan Kunihiko Ikuhara’s radical Yuri Kuma Arashi employs similar visual metaphors in its critique of the yuri genre’s trappings and the effect on modern day lesbian women, for example, while two of the celebrated animated masterpieces of the current era of yuri, Aoi Hana and Yagate Kimi ni Naru, both quite dramatically attack the arisen dilemma of ‘growing up’ and out of homosexuality. Fragtime’s less heavy discussion on the subject of close female relationships crossing into homosexuality may be more preferable, particularly for those not interested in the feministic ramifications, but it definitely lacks the punch of those three works, and doesn’t tie itself to a message for a better future for Japanese society or sympathising with oppressed homosexual women and girls. Fragtime sticks solely to these two lonely dorks growing up and into themselves, and of course, falling in love with one another.
So, with the time-stopping magic relegated purely to the concept (and occasionally handled with plot-holes), what it boils down to, then, is their romance. Murakami’s enigmatic tenacity, blunt comments and definite oddities elude Moritani’s nervousness at first, but as the shy girl grows into her own, the growing feelings hit their stride surprisingly well into the movie. Sexuality is used sparingly, daringly, and effectively, and there are some heartpounding moments. There’s enough oomph in the romance to make this trope-heavy hour a memorable one, and for genre fans like myself, it’s an uncharacteristic concept that cycles through the keystones of yuri handled confidently and adventurously.