This was the film I most wanted to see in Glasgow, simply because writer-director Naomi Kawase is one of the most frequent Cannes prize contenders never to have had a film released in the UK. No doubt some of her earlier films have been at festivals here, but if so I’ve missed them. Female Japanese auteurs are not easy to find so I’ve been on the lookout for a Kawase film for some time. Inevitably, the fact that this film is a French co-production will help its sales. France and other Francophone territories in Europe have been her only outlets so far but the catalogue suggests that Still the Water will be released by Soda Pictures in the UK.
Without any previous experience of the director’s films I’m struggling to find a way in to discuss the film and to respond to some of the reviews from Cannes where the film was in competition for the Palme d’Or (Kawase has previously won the Camera d’Or and the Jury Prize and in 2013 she was on the main jury panel). What, for instance, to make of Derek Elley’s Film Business Asia Review which is headed “More empty, pretentious ramblings from self-styled auteur Kawase Naomi” and scored as 2/10? By contrast, Indiewire thought the film had a chance of winning the Palme d’Or. I’ll try to work somewhere between these two.
Still the Water is an intriguing title (and as Elley points out, the Japanese title means something quite different which doesn’t match the plot either). The story is set on the island of Amami Ōshima, part of the archipelago that stretches between Kyushu, the southernmost of the four main Japanese islands, and Okinawa. Apparently Kawase, who grew up in the Nara region of Honshu, has discovered that her ancestors came from the Amami Islands. Apart from the beauty of the islands, two other elements of local Amami culture are significant. One is the presence of female Shinto priests or noro and the other is the importance of local folk/community song traditions. The waters are often not still because the region is subject to typhoons.
The narrative begins with the body of a tattooed man being found in the sea and a subsequent ban on sea bathing – ignored by Kyoko, the strong and very beautiful 16 year-old daughter of a family that owns a beach restaurant. The body had been found by Kyoko’s classmate Kaito and the young couple are in a relationship that hasn’t yet fully formed. While her father cooks the food and runs the restaurant, her mother Isa is seriously ill in hospital and will eventually come home to die. Isa is presumably a noro – though the subtitles call her a shaman. Kaito lives with his mother, a waitress in a local restaurant. She is separated from the boy’s father, a tattooist in Tokyo who Kaito visits one weekend. His mother is often out with new partners and this has an impact on Kaito. The narrative includes the mystery of the body in the sea as well as the romance between Kyoko and Kaito, but there isn’t really much plot. The main question seems to be how the different issues facing the couple’s parents will have an impact on their children. More important, perhaps, is the discourse about nature and spirituality, ecology and human psychology. One obvious point is about the juxtaposition of death – scenes of a goat being slaughtered by the old fisherman are presented in close-up detail and witnessed by Kyoto – and the blossoming of romance and sexual joy.
Those who don’t like the film seem to be most offended by the lack of narrative drive and what they see as Kawase’s pretentiousness. This view ignores the sheer beauty of the film and the sensitivity of the performances. The other stumbling block may be the ‘otherness’ of Japanese culture. It often seems to me that the importance of the sea in Japan’s ‘island culture’ isn’t properly recognised in the West – nor is the Shintoist belief in the spirits which inhabit specific locations. Perhaps the title refers to the oncoming typhoon and the possibility that the love between Kyoko (who is expected to inherit her mother’s powers?) and Kaito will ensure that ‘still water’ will be restored. Personally, I picked up echoes of Miyazaki’s Ponyo on the Cliff By the Sea (2008) – simply in terms of the spirits of the sea, the ecological questions and the triumphant young female figure. The look of the film, however, comes from a different kind of ‘magic image’ in the work of veteran cinematographer Yamazaki Yutaka, best known in recent years for his work with Kore-eda Hirokazu on his films about families and children. Still the Water benefits from his photography of the sea and landscapes as well as the characters. Equally important is the music, including the traditional songs sung in Isa’s last few hours on the beach. I like films in which the characters sing.
Now I’ve thought it through, I’m not sure that the film is a masterpiece but I certainly enjoyed it and I look forward to seeing it again. I’m also going to have to add this film to my list of movies with great cycling scenes. Here is the French trailer with English subs giving a good idea of the emotional intensity of the film.