Most daughters are raised to be quiet and obedient. Even in today’s more “progressive” societies, there are certain traditional values and generational expectations we continue to hold onto, however subconsciously. How do we adapt to change without erasing the cultural context leading up to it?
Tsugaru Lacquer Girl バカ塗りの娘 gently and carefully unearths the layers of gender politics within a Japanese family. It accomplishes this while also bringing in the question of tradition versus modernity through the lovingly shot montages of lacquer work.
Lacquerware is the Aoki family business. It is an old tradition for many East Asian cultures. Tsugaru lacquerware is known for its durability, with different techniques that create multi-layered patterns and colours. Yet the craft, like all traditional arts, is slowly fading into obscurity.
The process of creating lacquerware is one that requires patience. Director Keiko Tsuruoka closes the gap between the audience and the traditional craft with quiet, long minutes of the family patriarch, Seishiro, and the daughter, Miyako, applying lacquer on wooden bowls. As they mix the lacquer, paint coat upon coat, dabble on patterns, we can’t help but wonder—what’s next?
The Aoki family’s lacquerware workshop, much like many other lacquerware businesses in the surrounding area, are going through a decline. Everyone was expecting Miyako’s brother, Yu, to take over after the father. But Yu has no intention of doing so, and he makes his decision loud and clear. Miyako, on the other hand, smiles demurely and avoids the question when townsfolk ask her about the family business.
Every artist dreams of having their work being appreciated by the public. Likewise, I think many daughters also dream of being appreciated. And Miyako, the titular lacquer girl, spends most of the film struggling to be seen.
Watch the trailer for Tsugaru Lacquer Girl.
We’ve all heard the stereotype that Asian families are bad at saying “I love you,” or articulating any emotions at all. Much of that involves work unravelling generational trauma, social expectations, and saving face. And as a woman, sometimes there’s an extra layer of silence you internalize.
In Miyako’s case, her love of the traditional craft, passed down through her father’s lineage, is unmistakable. Yet she is unable to put a voice to this passion. It is not shame, but lack of confidence. It is not uncertainty, but hesitation in going against expectations.
As Miyako sits next to her father in their workshop, I am thinking about sitting next to my father in the living room. I’m lucky that my father has always encouraged me to follow my dream of telling stories. But at the same time, he has never really asked me about the stories I have scribbled all over my notebooks. There is an implicit understanding that the daughter will always stay within the drawn lines. This freedom, however, sometimes leads to invisibility instead.
The Aoki family revolves around lacquerware, which I read as a stand-in for tradition. Seishiro loves his daughter, but the ingrained attitude of boys-over-girls rears its head when you least expect it. With Yu declaring his rebellion against societal expectations, Miyako also shifts outside the confinements of the space defined by “the daughter.”
Just like the world has changed to embrace the advancement of technology, these traditional crafts—and traditional values—must also change to remain part of our cultural heritages.
When Miyako takes on a lacquer project of her own, she does not say a word to her father on-screen. From her first lines in the film, Mayu Hotta gives a subtle and brilliant performance as the only woman of the family running the errands, making dinner, trying to keep the status quo between the men of the household. This silent decision of hers to find her future with lacquer shakes the foundation of their household.
The family business, then, becomes something more than just a legacy—Miyako reminds us that lacquerware is an art form. More importantly, that it is something she loves. And when you love something, it is worth making noise.
Tsugaru Lacquer Girl does not have shocking plot twists or flashy action. Instead, it is the quiet moments that move me to tears. And I think that, too, is the strength of a daughter.
The Vancouver International Film Festival will present Tsugaru Lacquer Girl on October 4 and 6 at the International Village. For information and tickets, visit the VIFF website.