Hell is Other Roommates: Proximity and Peril in ‘2LDK’
Believe it or not, the delightfully manic portrayal of all-out domestic war in Yukihiko Tsutsumi’s 2LDK is the product of a bar bet. Tsutsumi and fellow Japanese director Ryuhei Kitamura challenged one another to see who could produce the better film while adhering to a series of debilitating conditions. Dubbed the “Duel Project,” their wager tasked veteran directors to write and direct a feature-length film that must include the following: two principal actors/actresses engaged in a battle to the death, shot in a singular principal location, completed within the week to see which of them could better transcend the arbitrary limitations with more artistry and originality.
While Kitamura’s supernatural flavored Jidai-geki Aragami is by no means a disappointing film given the circumstances, Tsutsumi’s 2LDK victoriously conquers its arbitrary obstructions and finds relevancy beyond the context of its “made on a dare” origins.
The abstruse title references the real-estate jargon describing the layout of Japanese apartments (2 bedrooms, Living Room, Dining Room, and Kitchen = 2LDK) and confirms to the audience that the entirety of the film will be confined to a single unit. Welcome to the home – and inevitable battleground slash final resting place – of aspiring actresses Nozomi and Lana (Eiko Koike and Maho Nonami), who are positioned as so diametrically opposed to the other it borders on the ironic. Nozomi presents herself as homely, intelligent and reserved; a newcomer to Tokyo from the rural Sado Islands who holds performance arts in the highest possible esteem. She is contrasted with the boisterous, vain and shallow Lana, a born-and-raised city girl who has coasted through the industry on her looks and connections. Both have auditioned for the leading role in an upcoming blockbuster, and both have been informed by the producers they’re the final two in consideration.
It isn’t long before these mismatched young women do away with the feigned pleasantries. What begins as biting and annoyed inner monologues escalates to petty bickering in the vein of common roommate squabbles (hogging the bathroom, playing loud music, and using each other’s beauty products without asking). Soon their living situation hits a boiling point and their domestic quarrel devolves into an all-out melee that includes swords, a chainsaw, and whatever more common household objects can be repurposed as weapons. The violence of their confrontation hits extreme levels of absurdity as psychological and physical torture stem from the role that came between them, leading – through jealousy and spite – to mutually assured destruction.
The mounting tension between Nozomi and Lana is aided by Tsutsumi’s claustrophobic visuals. While the condo is quite spacious for a solitary set, his camera always pushes into his principal characters until they consume the frame and settings blurs behind them. The trading close-ups between Nozomi and Lana gives the impression of a formal tug-of-war for supremacy. The audience becomes swallowed up by their interpersonal rivalry to the point where we feel trapped in this apartment along with them, underlined by the layered dialogue where every pleasantry is followed by their bitter inner monologues.
Take for example how we are introduced to the first “trivial” offense that sets their night indivertibly down a warpath. The hyper-fixating type, Nozomi discovers a hair belonging to her self-serving roommate on her personal bar of soap and forcibly confronts the offending party. Framed in a suffocating low-angle close-up of her towel-adorned head, she sets off on an affronted tirade about proper roommate etiquette. Lana, reclined on the floor and shot from a responding high-angle close-up of her bewildered face, drowns out this speech with an inner-monologue pontificating about her roommate’s mental state. The distressing proximity of this shot and reverse shot we endure as the audience – absorbed by both women through smothering close-ups and unfiltered access to their thoughts – overwhelms us and reduces the space of the apartment down to just these two people.
The uncomfortability of 2LDK’s exaggerated sense of closeness resonates differently in our newly claustrophobic times. Knowing we could be stuck with the people we live with for months on end, the stress of confinement and uncertainty can turn any environment hostile. While Nozomi and Lana’s shared captivity in their condo is dictated by the narrative and further arbitrary conditions of Tsutsumi’s production rather than the existential crisis caused by COVID-19, it does not prevent their simmering frustration with one another from feeling fresh and engaging. When circumstance has designated our roommates as the only other living soul we can interact with in person, the petty grievances and arguments of yesteryear can feel like vindictive slights in the ethos of lockdown.
This is why the flurry of violence that erupts between Nozomi and Lana in the film’s second half no longer feels like it is a transgressing of a mental breaking point. Through the hyper-stylized fight scenes of frenzied handheld cinematography, frenetic cutting, and a discordant soundtrack as the two make weapons out of their apartment’s gaudy décor, their prolonged final confrontation resembles cartoonish absurdity.
Most famously showcased in the sequence where Lana procures a chainsaw (somehow on hand in their apartment), the film briefly resembles slasher cinema. The exaggerated register of the flurried shaky cam and intensive close-ups suggests entrapment as the maniacal Lana stalks Nozomi through the apartment, sawing through whatever stands between her and carving up her roommate. The overstimulating presentation offers a reprieve from the shocking suddenness of their susceptibility to savage violence and makes light of how easily the provocation to a fatal duel emerges from their routine roommate quarrel.
Their battle even culminates in a scene befitting the chambara genre with the two of them at arm’s length, bloodied and bruised from the melee, each with a blade pointed at the other’s jugular vein. After an unexpected moment of respect and camaraderie over a battle well-fought, the film ends the only way it could have. The maniacal pleasure Nozomi and Lana take in “clearing the air” between one another through exaggerated brutality, finally dropping the pretense of forced pleasantries and airing everything out with each ruthless strike, ends on a peculiarly tranquil moment almost resembling Shinjū (Lover’s Suicide). In the end they each got what they wanted: they never have to deal with their roommate ever again.
2LDK in 2020 is a cathartic release. Not only in how it indulges the desire to purge one’s pent-up frustration from your less than ideal living situation, but also in the initiative that was inspired by its production. Overcoming the challenging obstructions of the “bet” that produced it, 2LDK serves as a testament to the kind of revealing creativity that can flourish under times of tensity and obstruction. Thinking about film production in the times of the COVID pandemic, it has certainly forced many emerging and established filmmakers to get used to the idea of debilitating obstructions (masks on sets, shooting from home, daily virus screenings, etc) being attached to their productions moving forward. It is nice to be reminded of an example where someone was able to overcome all their obstructions and make something that still resonates to this day. One imagines what would be produced by Tsutsumi if the wager were made in this year as opposed to way back in 2003.