Wow, what a gorgeous little short film. The Before trilogy is shaking. “Yuki” explores the life of Maya’s mom. Written and directed by Erskine, it is a love letter to the woman who raised her. Yuki even gets her own version of the credits with real-life photos from back in the day. It doesn’t get discussed much, but Mutsuko Erskine is displaced in time just like Maya and Anna. Since she’s Maya Erskine’s real-life mom, she is also playing a 20-years-younger version of herself. Maya and her mom are linked — as outsiders in this American culture, as gals with low self-image, and by being time travelers. I’ve often wondered what it’s like for Maya and her mother to reenact these old moments of discord. Surely you can’t help but get stuck in a younger you’s mind-set again. But this episode shows that Erskine sees her mother as a fully formed person with a whole Wong Kar-wai movie of longing and missed opportunities swirling around her at all times. Let’s dig into it.
The cold open is devastating. Being a merch girl at her age: a hellish proposition. Yuki sets up a table with CDs at a restaurant where Fred plays a gig. She is enraptured by her husband’s drumming until she notices that she is the only person in the room actively paying attention to the band — cue special opening credits.
Yuki starts her day in a real Marge Simpson place. She’s making breakfast for a family that isn’t entirely grateful for her efforts. What’s more, her kids make fun of her for not being able to say “Hit Clips” or “Oreo McFlurry.” Maya and Shuji are fighting all over the house. Shuji makes an expositional joke that just because they are half-siblings, Maya is not entitled to half his stuff. The line is there to remind you that Shuji’s dad isn’t Fred, but you can tell that any time Shuji distances himself from Maya in this way, it really hurts her. Girl needs some allies!
After her depressing morning of underappreciated labor, Yuki goes to the Asian grocery store. A car cuts her off, so Yuki winds up taking the handicapped spot. To sell her deception, she walks with a limp throughout the grocery store. (Inspiring to know where Maya gets her commitment to the bit.) She even keeps limping as she spies a man — a man we eventually learn is her first husband?!?!?! Who has never even met Shuji?!?!?! But with whom she still has hella chemistry!!
Shuji’s absentee dad is an enigma. Who is he? What’s his deal? He’s also a drummer, which is incredible. Mom has a type. It seems like he abandoned Yuki while she was still pregnant, and she got with Fred soon after. He considers this the “real” end of the relationship, which is some classic dude stuff. “You moved on so quickly after I abandoned you and our unborn child; that’s cold.” Okay, my guy.
Yuki and her former beau go for a walk through their regrets. The camerawork is loose and ’70s as all get out, adding to the art-film vibe of the episode. Apparently, before she was a mom, Yuki was hella cool. She worked as a translator working extensively with touring musicians, which is presumably how she met Fred back in the day. Stevie Wonder gave her a bag and made her husband mad with jealousy. I love this peek into Yuki’s past. Kids don’t think about our parents as human beings, especially ones who existed before us. This glimpse of what Yuki gave up for her family is heartbreaking, given how underwhelmed her kids seem to be with what she does for them. Later in the episode, Yuki promises to give her Stevie Wonder bag to Maya, who has no idea who that is. Girl, wait until the 1999 MTV Movie Awards. Then you’ll know who Stevie Wonder is.
It’s also really affecting to see the similarities between Yuki and her daughter. Yuki thought she was ugly, which makes the fight in “Three” that much more upsetting. Imagine your child confirming the most uncharitable thoughts you ever had about yourself without even knowing how deep that could cut.
The mother-daughter relationship is an extremely fraught one. Until now, Pen15 has mostly explored it from the daughter’s POV. “Yuki” gives its title character the chance to evaluate the choices she’s made (the kids she’s had) and decide whether it was worth it or not. She gets to feel desired in the hotel bar, even getting her own li’l dream ballet to a Dionne Warwick song that immediately went into my Spotify playlist. But when her first husband seems averse to meeting Shuji, it’s a total boner killer. Parenthood is an inherently future-oriented identity. You are stewarding the next generation, not looking back on the past or any alternate present.
Yuki leaves the old hubby passed out in his hotel room, swiping the painting he bought and giving it to the son he’ll never fucking meet. Shuji has every right to be extremely messed up about his dad noping out of his life before even meeting him. Frankly, it’s a miracle of parenting that he’s the swaggering dickhead we see. In fact, Yuki’s life, which seemed unfulfilling and lonely at the start of the episode, is actually so well set up that she can fuck off for a whole day, and things are still running pretty smoothly.
Erskine beautifully set up things in Act 1 that a veteran TV watcher would assume would cause conflict later in the episode. But instead, Fred just gets it done, almost like he’s a full partner in their relationship. Hot sauce? Purchased. That call about the tour? Not mentioned. Dinner? Dad took care of it. Husband No. 1 passed out drunk in his hotel room at 6:40 p.m. Husband No. 2 makes dinner for his kids and listens when she talks.
In bed with the Good Husband, Yuki tells a story about working as a translator. She always feels trapped between her life in America and her past in Japan. She’s always worried about being too Japanese or not Japanese enough. It echoes a lot of what Maya went through in the last episode. But the difference is that Yuki chose this life. She’s happy with it, even if her husband is gone half the year, and she’s stuck as a merch girl the other half.