The MUBI streaming offer currently includes three films by Kawase Naomi. The Mourning Forest is the earliest of the three and the other two, Still the Water (2014) and Sweet Bean (2015) were covered on this blog on UK release. The Mourning Forest didn’t make it into UK cinemas but I remember noticing its appearance at various festivals because it has been difficult to see Japanese films directed by women over the last few years and I began to look out for Kawase Naomi films. Eureka/Masters of Cinema brought out a Blu-ray/DVD dual edition of the film in the UK in 2017 – which presumably allowed this MUBI streaming opportunity as the companies seem to link up on distribution.
I think this earlier film, only her third feature after more than ten years of making mostly shorts and documentaries, is more difficult to watch, partly because of its subject matter. In visual terms the film is very beautiful but the focus on a care home which includes someone suffering from a form of dementia might be sensitive for some audiences.
The film is set in the hills and forests of Western Japan in a township, ‘Tawara’, I haven’t been able to find on a map. Nara is listed as the director’s home town and somewhere in Nara prefecture seems a likely location. Machiko (Ono Machiko) is a young woman who has taken a job at a care home outside the town, located in the hills next to a tea plantation amongst the rice paddies. As she begins to learn the daily routines guided by her understanding boss Wakako (Watanabe Makiko) she begins to get interested in one resident in particular, a widower Shigeki (Uda Shigeki, a non-professional actor). Shigeki has a form of dementia which occasionally makes him violent in a childish way. Some reviewers describe him as ‘elderly’ but although he is grey-haired he appears strong and supple in his movements. (He’s certainly a lot fitter than me!)
I’m not going to worry too much about spoilers because this isn’t a plot-driven film and the story-telling style is sometimes opaque so that it took me repeated viewings of some scenes to piece the narrative together. The Press Notes reveal that Kawase drew on her own family experiences and that she chose the precise location because in this area families and neighbours still prepare the dead in traditional ways without funeral directors and bury their relatives and friends without cremation. The film opens with a funeral procession through the fields and a montage of some aspects of preparation for the procession. The film’s title in Japanese means either the place of mourning or the ending of mourning. We get a glimpse of Machiko’s home life which seems to refer to a child who has died. Her husband blamed her for his son’s death.
The care home appears almost Utopian in the context of care homes in the UK. There are only a handful of residents who are taken for walks in the around the fields and the allotment, picking fruits and vegetables. They have calligraphy classes and one day a teacher comes to discuss philosophy with them – is he a Buddhist monk? There are moments in the film when signs and posters are not translated in the subtitles, which makes these scenes even more mysterious, but we do see that Shigeki’s wife was called Mako and that he sees from Machiko’s calligraphy that her name includes the same characters. The philosopher tells Shigeki that because his wife died 33 years ago she has now become a Buddah and can no longer return to this world. It is Shigeki’s birthday and all he seems to want as a gift is to be with Mako. A few days later Machiko takes Shigeki on a car trip. They head off across the hills but the car fails and they are stranded. When Machiko runs to the nearest house for help, Shigeki doesn’t wait in the car as she requested but heads off in the opposite direction. When she returns, Machiko is forced to look for him. The time they spend in the forest (she does find him) takes up the second half of the film. There is a resolution to the narrative but it is also to some extent ‘open-ended’.
I confess that when the car trip began I was worried. Machiko is inexperienced. Shigeki clearly likes her but he has been aggressive as well. But Wakako tells her “There are no set rules”. This isn’t a horror film or a crime thriller, but even so, a forest can be a dangerous and frightening place as well as a place of great beauty and spirituality. We often think of Japan as a crowded and urban society but even on the main island, Honshu, the central spine is mountainous and sparsely populated. I have seen several East Asian films in which forests are much more than just ‘locations’ and I commend the stunning photography by Nakano Hideyo and the music by Shigeno Masamichi which create the textures and moods of the forest. There are two moments of fantasy in the film but otherwise Kawase uses an observational camera and allows us, the audience, to construct the narrative as we see fit given the events observed and the excellent performances of the two central actors.
The Mourning Forest is not an easy watch but it is very rewarding if you stick with it and allow it to work. I’ve seen some dismissive reviews which clearly don’t understand what’s going on but if you are interested in intelligent and beautifully made cinema, I urge you to watch the film.
La vérité seems to have received a relatively cool reception by international critics and those few audience members who have managed to see it in the UK and the US where it has only been released online because of Covid-19. A general reaction is that it is witty with great performances but doesn’t have ‘depth’ and is perhaps a disappointment after the international success of Shoplifters (Japan 2018). I don’t agree with this. I did find the film a little difficult to get into but I think that was partly to do with watching it on my TV set on a Summer’s evening rather than in a darkened cinema. Once I was past the first 20 minutes or so I became engrossed and now I want to watch it again. Fortunately it is now on MUBI.
For those who aren’t Kore-eda Hirokazu fans, I should point out that this is an interesting hybrid – a film by the current international arthouse champ from Japan, made in France with two of the most important French actors, Catherine Deneuve and Juliette Binoche. And, just to make it extra tricky, there are several scenes in English with the presence of Ethan Hawke (who probably speaks reasonable French given his films with Julie Delpy and Kristin Scott-Thomas). This is Kore-eda’s first production outside Japan and he follows two other Asian directors in making a film in Paris. One of Kore-eda’s inspirations, the Taiwanese director Hou Hsiao-hsien, made Le voyage de ballon rouge (France-Taiwan 2007) (also with Juliette Binoche) and Iranian Asghar Farhadi made The Past (France-Italy 2013) with Bérénice Bejo. In both cases, the directors introduced characters from their own national cinema contexts into a French setting. Kore-eda is much more subtle in his references to ‘Japaneseness’ I think.
This film is an interesting mix of family melodrama (Kore-eda’s own strength), comedy and a film about acting and filmmaking (i.e. dealing with ‘truth’). Catherine Deneuve plays Fabienne Dangeville, a veteran diva of French cinema who has just published an autobiography and when we first meet her she is giving an interview in her Paris home to a journalist. This is interrupted by the arrival of her daughter Lumir (Juliette Binoche), a scriptwriter living in New York, with her husband Hank ( Ethan Hawke) and their daughter Charlotte (Clémentine Grenier). It soon becomes apparent that Fabienne’s book is titled, ironically, ‘The Truth’ but is clearly fabricated in many ways, including important omissions of friends, relatives and co-workers. Fabienne is also working on a new film, a science fiction story which forms a mise en abîme – a story within a story which reflects back on the overall narrative of the film. Fabienne plays a woman approaching 80 who bizarrely becomes the aged daughter of a young woman holding back the ageing process by spending most of her time in space. The casting pits Fabienne against a young actor Manon Lenoir (Manon Clavel). Will Fabienne bring her own prejudices about acting styles into her playing of the woman in the film? Of course she will.
My own first reaction to the film was that Kore-eda was again exploring different genres as he did in the The Third Murder (Japan 2017), a film that did cause consternation among some of his international fans expecting more of the same. It’s always a brave move to try something new, especially with a new crew and working in a second and third language. I’ve had to re-think that a little because in the Press Pack Kore-eda tells us that the origins of the film go way back to a play script he started to write in 2003 about an actor in her dressing room one night as she is coming to the end of her long career. The push to develop this idea then came from Juliette Binoche as far back as 2011. Kore-eda suggests that something about the film may also derive from his feelings about the death of the Kirin Kiki, the veteran actor for whom he felt affection and respect for her acting qualities. He links this last point to his desire to make a film that has a lightness and an ending which he hopes will mean that audiences leave a screening with a “little taste of happiness”. This is also because he wants to express his appreciation of the work by Binoche and Deneuve. Ultimately this is another great Kore-eda film about a family.
Tony Rayns in Sight and Sound reminds us that the idea of performed moments of reflection on past relationships was also a feature of After Life (Japan 1998) and that the filmmaking scenes in this new film, because it is shot in a studio with green screen have a ramshackle quality and an artificiality which is reminiscent of the earlier film. He points out there is also a specific ‘memory object’, a crucial element in the earlier film, which is also important here. In this case it is a child’s toy, a theatre which has been broken but which will be mended during a fleeting visit by Pierre, Fabienne’s estranged husband and young Charlotte’s grandfather – the theatre was made for Lumir, the daughter who struggles with dreams of being an actor like her mother.
The Japanese references come mainly from the setting in Autumn and the use of the location of Fabienne’s house. Kore-eda tells us:
I wanted the story to take place in autumn because I wanted to superimpose what the heroine goes through at the end of her life onto the landscapes of Paris at the end of summer. I hope people will see how the greens of the garden change subtly as winter approaches, accompanying the relationship between mother and daughter and colouring this moment of their lives. (Press Pack statement.)
Much of this is achieved by overhead shots of the garden but there is also a stunning image of a single tree seen, through the windows of the house, that is inserted almost like an Ozu pillow shot. This leads in turn to Fabienne’s solo walk with her little dog to a small East Asian restaurant (Chinese, I think?) in which she sits feeding her dog and watching a small family gathering celebrating something with an older woman as the centre of attention. This whole sequence seems very much part of Kore-eda’s world and its effects/affects are enhanced by the cinematography of Éric Gautier whose extraordinary list of credits includes recent work with Jia Zhang-ke on Ash is Purest White (2018) and Summer Hours (2008) by Olivier Assayas with Juliette Binoche in a family melodrama which some have seen as another comparison candidate. I was equally impressed with the music in the film by the Russian composer Alexei Aigui. Kore-eda tells his story through subtle mise en scène and music nearly as much as through his direction of his wonderful cast. I must also pick out the young girl playing Charlotte. One of Kore-eda’s greatest strengths is his direction of children. Charlotte is a very important character and Kore-eda generously recognises Ethan Hawke’s contribution in helping Clémentine Grenier, who never been on a film set before, play the role so effectively.
There is a great deal more to say about the film but I don’t want to spoil your pleasure. This is a perfectly-formed work of art by one of the very best living filmmakers. I hope you can get to see it. Here’s a short clip from early in the film which includes a reference to Fabienne’s great rival as actor and star, Sarah Mondavon.
The Hidden Blade is the second of director Yamada Yōji’s Samurai trilogy, all of which were based on short stories by Fujisawa Shûhei, and was scripted by him and Asama Yoshitaka. I saw the first of the set, Twilight Samurai (Tasogare Seibe, 2002), on its release and thought is superb. I’ve recently caught up with the other two though the last, Love and Honour (Bushi no ichibun, 2006), didn’t grab me; The Hidden Blade did.
The films are set just before the Meiji restoration that ended Japan’s isolation by bringing in western ideas and, at the same time, changed the role of the samurai; the time was also featured in the superb The Last Samurai. During this transition period, unlike the violent heroism of Kurosawa’s warriors, the samurai were functionaries of court. In Love and Honour our hero is poisoned whilst tasting food for the local lord; he’s permanently blinded and has to deal with his emasculation. In The Hidden Blade the hero, Katagiri (Nagasa Masatoshi), rails against the hypocrisy of his rulers whilst being forced to write a manual for using western weapons; a marvellous symbol of our civilising influence! For the samurai there will be longer the honour of using the sword but the ignomy of mechanical weapons. There’s a humorous thread throughout of the inability of the samurai to march in unison or even run with any speed.
Underneath the political intrigue is a simple love story to which the couple in question don’t even notice themselves as it has no possibility of fulfilment due to their caste differences. The performances of Nagasa and Matsu Takako, who plays Katagiri’s servent Kie, are marvellous. We know that they are in love despite the fact there is no interaction between them that directly signifies this is the case. In addition, the beauty of both landscape, buildings and costumes are pleasures in all three films of the trilogy; cinematography is by Naganuma Mutsuo (as it was with Twilight Samurai).
The Hidden Blade is not a film without action as there is a climactic battle where Katagiri is ordered to kill his friend who has rebelled against the feudal system. The rigid cruelty of the era is shown in the over-riding impulse of duty and in its treatment of women and lower castes.
Yamada is a formidable artist, and he’s still making films in his late ‘eighties; unfortunately, as far as I can tell, few of them are available in the UK.
I don’t like streaming. I prefer a physical video or a broadcast I can record. I don’t know how anyone can write about films seen once on a TV screen. Cinema screenings are slightly different as concentration is much easier in a cinema context – at least for me. It’s too easy to turn away from the screen and do something else when you are at home. It’s especially difficult to watch avant-garde or ‘experimental’ narratives on TV. Domains, which has just finished its run on MUBI is a case in point. This Japanese film by Kusano Natsuka is 150 minutes long and I found myself trying to watch it on its last evening of availability. I have to confess that there were moments when I switched to a faster speed and tried to shorten the running time without losing the sense of what I was watching. You might want to bear that in mind as you read my comments.
Domains is the second film by Ms Kusano. Her first, Antonym, was released in 2014. This new film was shown at Rotterdam in 2019 and has had a wider presentation internationally. It appears to me to be both an exploration of narrative form and possibly an analysis of a familiar triangular relationship, which in this case has resonance in a number of familiar Japanese narratives. The narrative opens with a simple set up. A woman in her late twenties, ‘Aki’, is seated at a table in a room without other furnishing. Across the table is a young man who reads to her a statement, in effect a confession, detailing how she murdered the 3 year-old daughter of her childhood friend Nodoka. The young man who may be a police officer or a court official wishes Aki to confirm her statement formally as she is now being ‘brought to justice’. Aki is confused and at one point she starts to sing a “gloomy Japanese folksong ‘Moon over Ruined Castle'” (as identified by Hayley Scanlon on her blog ‘Windows on Worlds’). The relevance of the song will become clear later, but what does this opening scene represent? Many reviews suggest that this is the climax of the story and that the whole story will appear in a long flashback. I’m not sure about that.
In the second scene, the same actor playing Aki (Shibuya Asami) is joined by a second actor (Kasajima Tomo) and after a while we realise that they are reading a script dealing with the events that Aki has related in her confession. Immediately we have a problem. Is ‘Aki’ a character in a fictional drama and are we still in the same fiction? Or is this a formal deconstruction of the narrative in which Kasajima reads the lines belonging to Aki’s friend Nodoka, but isn’t actually going to play the character in the fictional narrative? (I think I saw a comment that this film has something in common with Kore-eda’s After Life (Japan 1998) and there might be something in that.) The two actors read and re-read lines and there is a camera and a clapperboard to confuse us. We are in a rehearsal room. Why are these dialogue scenes being filmed, sometimes with ten takes? We do notice that the readings become more animated and soon a third actor appears. Adachi Tomomitsu reads the dialogue of Nodoka’s husband Naota and the same process of re-readings carries on. Eventually we do leave the rehearsal room to make brief journeys by foot and by car visiting various important locations. The basic story doesn’t change but gradually the elements of the story accrete more details and insights. But this doesn’t sound much for 150 minutes does it? I should emphasise that the pacing is very slow and there are several moments when a fade to black or a static composition is held so long that I wondered whether the streaming had frozen.
I can see that the formal operation here does reveal something about how theatrical and cinematic narratives work and how actors engage with and develop scripts. The slow pacing and the repetition is arguably necessary to illustrate these processes. We also get time to think about the other aspect of Kusano’s film – the story of the three characters.
Aki and Nodoka went to a girls’ school together in this small community and then to the local university where they met Naota. Aki then left to work in Tokyo, an hour’s journey away and only returned to visit her friend after four years. Aki is currently on some form of sick leave, having suffered a minor breakdown at her job in the production division of a publishing house. Naoto has a job as an art teacher in a middle school and Nodoka has been at home with her daughter Honoka (who is now 3 and will soon go to kindergarten). When Aki arrives at Nodoka’s house for the first time, she notices the temperature and humidity, but also that Nodoka has changed and that she appears repressed in some way. It is then that we realise the importance of the song about castles and the film’s title ‘Domains’. Naoto the teacher is governed by ‘logic’ and by language, the importance of words. This is his ‘domain’. Aki and Nodoka as children had their own ‘domain’ – ‘castles’ built by stretching fabric over chairs and climbing inside. Aki sees this as a domain of feelings. The clash with Naota feels inevitable.
All of this seems to me to be familiar from aspects of Japanese culture and Japanese cinema. I’ll just offer two observations on this. First Kusano also offers us a number of static shots. Some are shots of significant story elements such as images of trees in the wind (the murder takes place during a specific moment in the ‘eye’ of a typhoon in the Kanto region). Others may be symbolic, but also reminded me of Ozu’s classic ‘pillow shots’ – an outside shot of a house or an empty room, often with a sense of graphic design, that serves to punctuate the flow of images and to subtly change our expectation of the next shot. But some of these seemed to be held too long to play the same kind of role as in Ozu’s family dramas. Secondly, the discourse about male and female power/status is here explored in a situation where the social position of Nodoka is determined solely by her maternal role. All three characters have the same background and the same education. For Naota to retain control, he must oppose Aki. She is a threat to family and to his ‘logic’.
Domains is an interesting film. It is also, for me, frustrating. I’m interested in the story and in the presentation of the narrative. But I really do think it could be accomplished in less than 150 minutes and that if the audience was more continuously engaged they would get more from it. I note that the film was written by Takahashi Tomoyuki, who was one of three writers on Happy Hour (2015) a five hour marathon about the lives of four 30 something women and reviewed by Nick Lacey, which also streamed on MUBI. Nick tells us that: “Overall it was well worth the effort of sitting in front of a television for hours”. He watched it in two parts. The subject matter sounds similar but the presentation sounds more conventional. I’m interested that this male screen writer should be writing women’s stories for a woman to direct (he also wrote Kusano’s first film Antonym). I suspect that for the moment Kusano Natsuka might find her work confined to festivals, although this was actually a MUBI release in the UK – disrupted by the pandemic. I will be interested to see what she produces next.
Tokyo! is a triptych, a three part ‘compendium film’ made as a Japanese-French co-production partnership and featuring two of the quirkiest French directors, Michel Gondry and Leos Carax. The reason for writing about it now is that I am researching the third director, the then rising star of South Korean cinema, Bong Joon-ho. All three directors were asked to make a film lasting roughly 36 minutes set in Tokyo. This follows similar projects set in Paris and New York. I don’t know how the commission was worded but the three films take quite different approaches. Two of them do focus on ‘living in Tokyo’.
Michel Gondry’s ‘Interior Design’ is up first. He adapted a graphic novel story, ‘Cecil and Jordan in New York’ by Gabrielle Bell, and presents it as a young couple driving into Tokyo and then sleeping on the floor of a university friend’s apartment. Space is at a premium in Tokyo so all the apartments are cramped and expensive and there is nowhere to park the car. The guy in the couple is an aspiring filmmaker with some novel ideas but the woman has not yet decided what she wants to do and the experience of coping with Tokyo (and how it changes their relationship) affects her much more than him. Gondry finds a fascinating and delightful way of visualising how she feels and I greatly enjoyed his film.
The middle film by Leos Carax is titled ‘Merde’ and features a demented character emerging from the sewers and racing down the streets in Tokyo’s high-end shopping area, knocking down shoppers and stealing odd items to chew on. Dressed in a vivid but filthy green suit the man is played by Carax’s ‘go to’ actor Denis Lavant with relish. He has a milky eye, a red beard, sooty hands and feet and gurns enthusiastically. His rampage is repeated a little later but this time he stages a terrorist act and is arrested. In what follows, Carax offers a satire on a range of social and political issues that are universal but here they are made specific to Japan. The final section utilises the judicial system in Japan as a narrative device to pick out specific Japanese issues about wartime atrocities and immigration policies and also offers a prescient commentary on how populist media campaigns are fuelled (and contested) by the ways in which incidents are reported. A caption at the end promises us a ‘Merde in New York’ follow-up.
Bong Joon-ho’s film completes the triptych with a more composed and beautifully designed film, ‘Shaking Tokyo’. The central character is a hikikomori – a recluse who lives alone in an apartment from which he never emerges, only opening the door to the delivery drivers/riders who bring his food and drink and other necessities. Even then he doesn’t look up to make eye contact. He hasn’t left the apartment for more than 10 years. He is still relatively young and receives money from his father each week. One day he opens the door for his Saturday pizza delivery. As usual, his gaze is lowered to focus on the pizza box onto which he will place the cash for the deliverer, but today his eye catches the leg of the person holding the box. There is an almost fetishistic suspender joining the person’s shorts and leggings. Our recluse hero looks up and sees this is an attractive young woman who delivers pizzas using a motor scooter. For a moment their eyes make contact and then a rumble announces an earthquake. The apartment full of supplies and carefully stored pizza boxes etc. starts to shake and the young woman faints. The recluse is forced to act. I won’t spoil what happens in the rest of the narrative, but after this classic ‘inciting incident’ the hikikomori can’t just carry on as he did before. He feels compelled to leave the apartment.
Bong’s film is beautifully shot by Fukumoto Jun. Kagawa Teruyuki, playing the role of the recluse, makes almost imperceptible movements in close-up to convey his thought processes (which are sometimes confirmed by his voice-over thoughts). Within the confines of the apartment and an exquisite mise en scène comprising neatly stacked boxes, bottles and toilet roles, Bong is still able to construct an engaging narrative. How do we relate this to Bong’s concerns in his features? Unusual for a Bong film there is no form of family or social group to enable a commentary on society – perhaps because this is Japan rather than South Korea? Instead the film demonstrates Bong’s mastery of design and choreography of action. And the hikikomori is a familiar marginal character who is forced out of his home to search for the young woman. Once out of the apartment and out on the street, perhaps Bong does critique Japanese society, albeit obliquely and in a way that might only be possible for a Korean. Whatever you make of the last few minutes of Bong’s film, he has done what all the best short films should do in my view – produce a narrative with ideas and try to make it as ‘filmic’ as possible. I don’t how his crew were able to create the final scenes but it works very well. I would recommend the the triptych for Bong’s film alone with Gondry’s as a bonus. I know Leos Carax has his fans and they may enjoy his contribution.
I only recently caught Shinkai Makoto’s much lauded Your Name (Kimi no na wa, Japan 2016) whose gender-swapping premise, mixed with natural disasters, was a fascinating mix of teen pic and SF. Weathering With Me is even better, though I’m not sure how much my delight in the latter film was influenced by seeing it on an IMAX screen.
The last film I saw on the big screen format was Blade Runner 2049 which seemed to me to be diminished by the large screen. I have found it difficult to know where to look on the IMAX space and this uncertainty interrupts the flow of the filmic experience. As Weathering With You was limited to one screening in Bradford I’m grateful to my daughter for insisting we go, despite my reservations. Whilst I haven’t wholly changed my views on IMAX’s suitability as a medium for narrative cinema, I am pretty sure this anime benefited from the eyeball-encompassing space facilitated by the large screen: it is an exceptionally beautiful film. However, I found Blade Runner 2049‘s visuals superb too so I’m not sure what the difference is. If anything, watching Weathering, because the need to read subtitles necessitates an obvious movement of the gaze to the bottom of the screen, should have been an even less fulfilling experience but I was simply bowled over by the images.
Like Your Name, Weathering With You deals with a coming of age narrative but instead of a backdrop of natural disasters, here it is ecological disaster that affords the context to teenage travails: it is raining incessantly in Tokyo. At first it appeared that Makoto was making a point about climate change, Gaia is mentioned early on, but by the conclusion it seems, disappointingly, to have been more a metaphor for the difficulties of growing up and first love. Morishima runs away from the boring sticks to make his fortune in Tokyo and Amano finds she is ‘weather girl’, a modern shaman who can make the sun shine. How they get together is subject to many (sometimes implausible but who cares when you’re seeing such sumptuous images?) narrative obstacles, some of which are funny.
In one scene the protagonists fall slowly, upside down, from the sky and I can’t work out why that image affected me so much. Whilst falling from the sky is obviously not a good idea for everyday life, maybe the image is about connecting with the unearthly aspects of our planet; hence Amano is a shaman. In our ‘sophisticated’ capitalist world we have lost touch with Earth, hence most don’t notice the incremental changes as we destroy it. Science has often been at the service of capitalism, developing products, services and new markets, and when it has attempted to speak loudly about climate catastrophe its message has been mangled and muted by vested (money) interests. Although Weathering With Me isn’t directly an ecological parable it does evoke the power of nature in a spectacular, and scary, way. Two likely ‘films of the year’ in one week!