Story: Chihiro (Kasumi Arimura) used to be a sex worker and now she earns her living working in a bento shop. In the meantime, the student Okaji (Hana Toyoshima) has developed a special interest in the woman, because she light-heartedly fools around with children, takes care of a homeless person, and just seems to lead a life that could be described as odd. Okaji eventually talks to her and the two get a little closer. Chihiro also meets the somewhat cheeky kid Makoto (Tetta Shimada), whose single mother hardly has time for him as she has to work till late in the evening. She repeatedly takes care of him but also gets into trouble with his mother for that. Chihiro's friend Basil (Van), whom she knows from her previous job, also comes to visit from time to time to talk about her problems. Even though Chihiro's life is full of interesting people, there is a hole in her soul that she is not able to fill. No one seems to truly understand her. The only person she feels somewhat of a connection to is Tae (Jun Fubuki), the co-owner of the bento shop, who is currently in the hospital and has lost her eyesight. But no matter what Chihiro does, she doesn't seem to truly belong anywhere. And when she finds out about her mother's death, she doesn't feel anything at all. She didn't have any contact with her for years, and maybe she did manage to build something like a new family after all.
Review: As you can already guess from the short summary, "Call Me Chihiro" is a slow-paced movie that makes do with only a minimal story and through its characters deals with the topic of loneliness. The eponymous protagonist has carried that loneliness with her for a long time and she has become an expert in identifying it in others. And so, she always helps the people around her, which fortunately does not turn into an episodic structure, though. In fact, many of her acquaintances come together and give each other support. Only Chihiro is always left behind with her loneliness, even though she knows how to enjoy life. The beauty of "Call Me Chihiro" is that the drama is by no means overwhelmingly tragic or depressing. Instead, we get a good dose of hope, because that's exactly what Chihiro gives to the people around her.
Since Chihiro was scarred by life herself, she is able to quickly notice suffering in others. Her open-minded, casual nature, which is never pushy, though, gives her the ability to immediately break the ice by talking to people around her. She also makes no secret of her previous employment. Again and again, her past catches up with her, although not in the form of angry suitors etc., but for example, in form of her old boss, who now sells aquariums and who is like a father figure for her, or her old colleague, who is her best friend. In addition, there is Okaji, who feels lonely at home because no one shows any real interest in her. The brash boy Makoto also brings a little spice into Chihiro's (and Okaji's) everyday life. The stories run parallel, cross each other's path here and there, but always have Chihiro as an anchor. This works amazingly well.
However, there are a few relationships that are not portrayed sufficiently elaborate, like the one between Okaji and a manga reader who becomes her best friend. In order to make it believable, the director would have needed to show the process of a real friendship forming. Another key relationship is the one between the protagonist and Tae, who is something like a mother to Chihiro. Unfortunately, the focus is placed a little too late on this storyline, and even though the relationship is convincing, you get the impression that more could have been done, and even that more would have been crucial in that respect. But maybe some things are only supposed to be hinted at, after all, we learn very little about Chihiro's family and the origin of her problems/loneliness. This is a real pity, especially since the movie generally succeeds in gradually shining more and more light on the protagonist's character and removing layer by layer until we come closer to her true nature.
In conversations various characters also repeatedly let us know what they think about the young woman. To them, she seems somewhat empty inside, and that's unquestionably true, after all, she is lonely. She is looking for individuals who are like her, and even though there is more than enough loneliness around her, the people are from a completely different planet than her. Tae seems to be the only exception, but the question remains whether Chihiro is able to find her way out of loneliness thanks to her. But she also enjoys life. Not only when she helps others, but also when it comes to food. Even though Okaji has a mother who can cook wonderfully, she doesn't really enjoy eating when she sits at the dinner table with her emotionally distant family. From Chihiro she learns that you can also enjoy things by yourself - or with the people you personally choose on your path through life and suffering.
Kasumi Arimura ("Flying Colors") demonstrates a great sense for nuances in this drama, which is based on a manga by Hiroyuki Yasuda. Chihiro could easily have come across as a mixture of inner emptiness and superficial Samaritan, but instead she manages to give her character different facets. The other actors also do their part to carry this movie, which strongly leans on its characters, and even supporting actors - like Lily Franky ("Shoplifters"), for example - shine. However, the drama has one big weakness: you have to cope with the slow pacing. Even though the movie does not convey art-house flair at all, not everyone will enjoy its 134 minutes of runtime and the leisurely pace. On the positive side, though, you get a character drama that revolves around loneliness, love, and friendship, but without turning into a tear-jerker at the end. Instead, "Call Me Chihiro" leaves you with a sense of hope.