SARAH LOHMANN WRITES — How do we find out who we are? Rikiya Imaizumi’s Call Me Chihiro unfolds the possible answers to this layered question through its unique aesthetics and lack of sound.
The film premiered internationally on Netflix on February 23, 2023, and made a special impact on viewers. Salvatore Cento of MovieWeb called it a “soothing” film about the “intimacies of life.”
The story follows the titular Chihiro as she rebuilds her life in a small town in Japan. A former sex worker, she works at a bento shop, touching lives without meaning to. Imaizumi uses silence and unique direction to show the emotional tides in Chihiro’s life and those close to her.
One of the most distinctive elements of Call Me Chihiro is silence—a stylistic element prevalent in many Japanese films. Although it has a soundtrack, it is punctuated by frequent silence wherein only ambient sounds can be heard. This sets the scene with curiosity: what are we hearing? Where are we? What is important? Without a soundtrack, the viewer must be intensely present in intimate moments with Chihiro as she walks by the sea, visits a gravesite, and finds a corpse in an alleyway. Such scenes are visually striking, but while films often opt for silence to establish a realistic, often dark, viewing experience, Imaizumi uses ambient silence to show how Chihiro interacts (or doesn’t) with the world.
Friends and coworkers describe Chihiro as a kind soul, though difficult to read, and she struggles to connect with people. She craves companionship, and her loneliness is revealed throughout the film. However, despite the feeling that she is from, as she puts it, a different planet, she finds herself surrounded by the most unlikely combination of people. A bullied elementary student, a lonely high schooler, and a blind elderly woman: her influence on them is—while substantial—silent, too.
The purposeful directing choices adroitly ensure we never see more than we need. No moment is wasted, and the viewers must draw their own conclusions when things are left open-ended. For example, in one scene, the camera pans in a circle, starting on Chihiro and moving around to show her guests. When the camera settles again, Chihiro’s chair is empty. No one seems to notice for a moment, and we wonder where our protagonist has gone—physically or metaphorically. The direction and powerful silence give the viewer a lot of agency over how they understand Chihiro’s actions and feelings.
Call Me Chihiro details the strange emotional landscapes of everyday people—especially those often left unseen. How can we cope when others don’t even think of us when we are invisible? How can we understand others through the silent screen of emotional ambiguities? While some viewers may scoff at the nonlinear plot and the seeming lack of external conflict, Call Me Chihiro is for those looking for a penetrating and heartfelt exploration of identity and human connection.
Sarah Lohmann has a BA in Creative Writing and Asian Studies. She focused her research on film, translation, and literature.
Edited by book review editor-in-chief, Ella Kelleher.