Sean Burdett’s review published on Letterboxd:
Cycles. Everything in the world seems to be a circle; it's even ingrained into the language of life itself -- "the circle of life". Everything has a beginning and an end, but its beginning and end are determined by those before it. The people around us; our friends, parents, lovers shape who we are. We hope to choose our own path, but our environment is what defines us so much of the time.
Kaori. Her life is not explained, but it is understood. Having seen this 4 times now, I think I know who she is without it ever being said. She has traveled from partner to partner, none sticking, many likely abusing her and leaving her alone. I do not know any of this, but I’m sure it’s all true. Her life is lived through others; whether it’s because she never got enough attention and care in the past or a series of relationships with partners who abused her, she’s unable to position herself in a relationship without immediate security of its permanence. Everything for her must be concrete despite Yoko’s insistence against family. She’s constantly pleading for someone to stay by her side because she’s been left alone time after time and can’t handle it happening again. Because of this, without those promises, she will leave and run out of fear that she will be left alone once more. She can’t sustain these relationships because of the people who have done to her what she now does to others. Especially in the opening scenes of her unhealthy relationship to and obsession with Tetsu, it’s clear her desperation and mistreatment of others because of her lived experience. What she does is wrong, but we understand why she does it and she remains human despite it. By the end, she’s come to terms with herself and has finally found a relationship to ground herself in, or at least I hope.
Tetsu. His life is a story familiar to many; simple and easy(at least on the outside) for much of it until finally confronted with true grief. His wife is lost in the opening minutes; what lost came before we do not know, but as far as I can discern, his life was as good as one can hope. Her loss affected him deeply, infiltrating every piece of his life, leaving him empty and yearning for the connection he lost. He becomes vulnerable to everything, opening his arms to the first woman who comes to him, despite her obvious toxicity. When she in turn leaves, he is left entirely broken; his grief and despair is now so overwhelming that he can no longer care for his son effectively. His grief morphs into rage and control as he takes out his pain on his son. For this, he is despicable, and yet, he is human. Sono never loses sight of this, despite what he does to Yu, it is understood where it came from, and that he can get better. He has done horrible things, but he is not horrible, or at least I hope not. His grief contextualizes everything, and his eventual redemption comes not out of the blue, but from his serious dedication to understanding his own faults and correcting them. We do not know how he treats Yu in the end, but I like to think they greet once more after the film's end, this time with open arms and forgiveness for the first time in their lives.
Koike. Her life is defined by abuse; the first we learn of her(and I mean really learn of her) is in the context of her trauma. Her father is as awful as a human could be, abusing her sexually, physically, and emotionally. It's painful to watch what goes on in her chapter and it recontextualizes her actions for the rest of the film. The abuse in her life consumes her, breaks her; she only finds solace in a collective -- The Zero Church. Only through other's control does she finally start to live. Because of who she is and what she's been through, she was susceptible to that influence and fell into that world easily. She is controlled and abused(though in ways she does not and will not acknowledge), and eventually becomes the perpetrator of all the abuse that's been inflicted upon her. She gains status in the cult so she controls and abuses others; she's broken beyond the point of repair, and there is no longer any hope for her in this world. My heart bleeds for Koike, it always has. She's not an antagonist like any other, she's as broken and human as the characters we care for, and when all is said and done, her death is felt as much for me as any harm that comes to Yu or Yoko. The imagery of her death has always stuck with me; the bird leaving her chest seems a clear symbol for her soul and is the hope I see in her character. Though that bird was long dead from what her father had done to her, in death she is finally able to escape the trauma that has plagued her for her entire life. Death is rarely optimistic and as a premise for hope, it's almost impossible to stomach, but here it works. It's the only light we see from her and I think that's how Sono makes so evident the depths of his empathy -- he cares for a person who, for the duration of the film, has done nothing but hurt others; he still chooses to humanize her in her last moments and draw light to her humanity in spite of all she's done. There's a small hint of beauty in that I hope.
Yoko. Her life, like Koike’s, is plagued by abuse. Her father, like Koike’s, was abusive sexually, physically, and emotionally, throughout her entire time with him. The abuse ran so deep that she took it out on others. The scenes in her chapter about “hating men” and “beating up boys” are pretty fuckin’ hilarious, but they’re also conveyed with the utmost sincerity. Her abuse has now been turned on others and runs so deep to the point that she can no longer trust any men(except Kurt Cobain and Jesus of course). Meeting Kaori is important, and helps, but isn’t enough. She’s still afraid, adversarial, and unable to interact with people sincerely outside of Kaori for the most part. She has a friend, but she hasn’t healed; as soon as Kaori moves outside her comfort zone, Yoko runs because she cannot confront that. Fortunately for her, a miracle takes place and everything changes. It all fits into place for a moment and seems like it’ll all be okay. It is, and it won’t be, but it’s something that was different and that’s enough for her to alter her entire way of living. While she’s so much the same, she’s finally able to change, and that’s everything.
Yu. His life seems okay at first, but he is soon afflicted by abuse like Yoko and Koike were(though not the same kind of abuse). His father pushes him to “sin” as a way of lashing out from his own grief. He feels the need to do wrong because of his father’s neglect; his father can’t bear to see his son good because he feels so far from it himself. He falls farther and farther down a hole dug by his father, but he’s soon left alone. He falls in with a group of kids not unlike himself, all acting out in myriad ways because they have nothing and no one else. They do it because they do not know what else to do, and Yu joins in because he feels he has to. Doing these things is wrong, but Yu remains human. His situation is understood and looked on with empathy and care for his fundamental humanity despite his failings set in motion by his father. But. His journey does not end there, he meets Yoko, someone as broken(more broken) as him. Together they change, but not in a way either understands or perceives in its entirety. They change and mold for people they don’t know, and yet it still works. The belief in someone who cares for them and who they love is enough to carry each of them. Yoko becomes lost, but Yu stops at nothing to save her; she does the exact same thing after him. They do not know each other, but they are everything to each other because they have no one else. Is that possible? Is a person you barely know enough to save you? I don’t think so, but maybe, just maybe one person out there at just the right time is enough. And maybe them being there isn’t what saves you, maybe it’s you saving yourself because of them. I don’t know, but I do know that this film gives me hope. That cycles can be broken, people saved, and love found.
This is a film about cycles. All the characters are broken, do awful things, and would seem awful from the outside looking in. They are who they are because of the people around them that have pushed them to where they are. Abuse, trauma, grief, loss, pain, religion, guilt. They all play a role in making these characters who they are; all are real and all have weight. Koike doesn’t escape her cycle, and my heart bleeds for her every time I see her breathe her last, but the rest do. Tetsu and Kaori heal together, as do Yu and Yoko. After Yu has saved Yoko, she does the same. The film ends with their hands extended towards each other, finally on level ground, both understanding, knowing, and loving each other. The cycle is broken.