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.
This was the thirds and final programme of early Japanese sound films curated by Alexander Jacoby and Johan Nordstrom for Il Cinema Ritrovato. The selection of films was made from a major Japanese studio, Shochiku, whose cohorts included major Japanese directors and at a point when the industry was increasing it mastery of the new technology. This was for me the strongest programme of films of the three.
Shochiku employed to brothers to ‘plunder Western technical journals to produce an indigenous sound system, ‘the so-called “Tsuchihashi system”. The studio also moved production from its Kamata studio on the outskirts of Tokyo to rural Ofuna, where external noise was much lower. ‘Ofuna flavour’ was a description of the tone of Shochiku productions in the period, dominated by the shomi-geki genre. But the films also tended to follow the style developed at Kamata in the silent era:
directors such as Shimazu, Shimizu, and the young Naruse perfected a distinctly flamboyant visual style, ‘Kamata modernism’, ideally suited to exploring the tension in 1930s Japan between the native and the foreign, tradition and modernity.
Hanayome No Negoto / The Bride Talks in Her Sleep, 1933 57 minutes and
Hanamuko No Negoto / The Groom Talks in His Sleep, 1935 73 minutes.
This was a double bill of comedies directed by Gosho Heinosuke and scripted by Fushimi Akira. Both films were photographed by Ohara Joji. The sound team included one of the Tsuchihashi brothers. The most well known performers for western audiences would be Tanaka Kinuyo. The curators comment that
much of the film’s distinction comes from the wit of Gosho’s direction and the charm of the acting, particularly of the heroines (Tanaka Kinuyo in Bride; Kawasaki Hiroko in Groom.
Ureshii Koro / Happy Times, 1933 83 minutes and with an aspect ratio of 1.: 1.19, the standard ratio for early talkies.
Directed by Nomura Hiromasa and scripted by Ikeda Tadao. This was another light comedy, wherein a young, newlywed couple have their home visited and disrupted by an older and more traditional uncle. The film was a box office success and praised in the influential “Kinema Junpo” for ‘ its script, direction and tempo’.
Nakinureta Haru No Onna Yo / The Lady Who Wept in Spring, 1933 96 minutes.
Directed by Shimizu Hiroshi, script by Suyama Mitsuru, with cinematography by Sasaki Taro with music by Shimada Harutaka.
The film deals with a miner Kenji (Obinata Den) working on the remote northern island of Hokkaido and his relationships with two ‘itinerant’ women. Shimizu has a reputation, writers note
the director’s ‘affinity [with] fallen souls’, [and] his interest in vagrants and fallen women.
But he is also noted “as a master director of child actors”. A critic writes that
Shimizu Hiroshi presents all the splendour of life, embodied in the spectacle of children simply being themselves.
[His Children of the Beehive / Hachi no su no kadomotachi, 1948 is a good example seen in the UK a couple of years ago]. The older woman in the film has a young daughter who plays an important part in developments.
The film itself makes good use of some location filming and also of songs on the soundtrack.
The drama is finely developed and there is impressive ending that works with familiar tropes in a distinctive fashion.
Tonari No Yae-Chan / Our Neighbour, Miss Yae, 1934, 76 minutes.
Directed by Shimazu Yasujiro who also scripted the film. The neighbours involve a pair of sisters and a pair of brothers. The family homes and environs are depicted in a realist style and with a strong sense of irony. The between these young people, playful and sometime romantic, is delightful. Shimizu is reckoned to be a pioneer of the shomin-geki film at Shochiku. And a film like Our Neighbour offers a sense of whole family life rather than focusing on a couple of dramatic leads.
Shunkinsho Okoto To Sasuke / Okoto and Sasuke, 1935, 100 minutes. A second film directed and scripted by Shimazu Yasujiro. This is a period drama, jidai-geki, dealing with romantic relationships rather than the world of the samurai. Okoto is played by one of Japan’s major female stars early in her career, Tanaka Kinuyo. And Sasuke is played by Saito Tatsuo. The film is adopted from a popular novel. The film deals with distinctions of age and class and one writer proposed that it offered ‘extreme male masochism’. This is strong melodrama, with a shocking climax that recalls the unconventional style of Kinugasa Teinosuke. “Kinema Junpo” produced annual ‘top tens’ of releases, and awarded this film third place.
Note: the two following films were produced at a new film company Daiichi Eigasha. The head of the news studio and many of its staff had formerly worked at Nikkatsu, the other major Japanese Studio. Its productions were funded and distributed by Shochiku and it was, effectively, a short-lived subsidiary.
Gubijinso / The Field Poppy, 1935, 73 minutes.
Directed by one of the most famous Japanese filmmakers Mizoguchi Kenji. The film is taken from a tale by a major author, Natsume Soseki, adapted by jidai-geki specialist Ito Daisuke. The cinematography, highly praised in ‘Kinema Junpo’, is by Miki Minoru.
One critic draws comparison with Max Ophuls,
Mizoguchi tracks the romantic roundelay through the circulation of a symbolic object: a watch intended as a wedding gift.
Rather different from Madame De…, this film features the tragedy that follows on from rejection rather than infidelity. The film also uses the contradiction between the country and the town and between classes. This is a film that appears to privilege the traditional over the modern.
Ojo Ikichi / Dame Okichi, 1935, 64 minutes.
This film involved Mizoguchi Kenji as he ‘supervised’ the direction by Takashima Tasunosuke: the latter a regular scriptwriter for Mizoguchi, including for The Field Poppy. The Catalogue notes debate around the extent of Mizoguchi’s contribution. Some critics suggest that
the film is characteristic of the master both in plot and style’ … the film has some typically Mizoguchian scenes that dwell on chiaroscuro melancholy.
The plot certainly has recognisable tropes; a heroine involved with gangsters but emotionally committed to innocent younger man. Shades of The Water Magician (Taki no shiraito, 1933).
Hitori Musoko / The Only Son, 82 minutes.
This is the first sound film directed by Yasujiro Ozu. It is likely to be familiar for English-speaking audiences, as it is one of his films that have circulated here. Tsune (lida Choko), a working class widow, raises her son Ryosuke (Shin’ichi Himroi). She suffers privations in order that he can receive an education. Much of the film is taken up with a visit that she makes to her now adult son in Tokyo. The film has the recognisable hallmarks of Ozu and is a fine melodrama. Untypical it focuses on working class life. Ryu Chishu, looking incredibly young, appears as the teacher Okubo.
Ozu and his team had to produce the film at the old Kamata Studio, where lack of soundproofing hindered the filming.
The Festival programme also included a short snapshot, Nihon No Eiga Zukuri / Movie Making in Japan 1934, eight minutes. This final programme of three reached 1936.
This decisive shift was mirrored in other studios [Shochiku’s move to Ofuna and the ‘talkie film’ becoming the dominant mode], with 1936 the first year in which more sound films were produced than silents in Japan overall. Therefore, that year is a particular apt moment to end this survey of Japan’s early sound cinema.
All the features were screened on 35mm prints with English subtitles and [with the noted exception in 1.37:1, and all were provided by the Japan Film Centre in fair to pretty good prints. Nearly all of the films had had digital noise reduction applied to soundtracks. Fortunately the festival programmed in two screenings because the daytime screenings were packed. The repeats, usually in the evenings, were slightly easier in finding seats.
This was a rewarding programme to enjoy and one of the highlights of the 2014 Festival.
All quotations from the Catalogue of the 2014 Il Cinema Ritrovato.
There are already millions of words out there on the latest Godzilla so I’ll try to say something different about the film. This will I imagine be the only Hollywood blockbuster I’ll watch this year so I’m not going to pass judgement as such. I note that the film has divided audiences and critics alike. If I ‘read’ the overall reaction, the feeling is that the monsters are pretty good and generally better than the human cast. The film is criticised by some for too much story and too little action. I enjoyed the film up to around the three-quarter point but then I thought it lost its way.
My interest in the film is of course because this is essentially a Japanese franchise now receiving a second Hollywood reboot. We’ve had the German director’s version from Roland Emmerich and now we get Gareth Edwards as the British helmsman, but with an American story and script from two writers neither of whom have much of a profile on IMDB that might give a clue as to where the new story originates. I was impressed by Edwards’ low budget Monsters (UK 2010) so I was intrigued to see how he would handle a high-budget production. From what I’ve read, Edwards is a genuine Gojira (the original Japanese title) fan and it’s tempting to think that his authorial stamp appears across the film. I think it does in terms of Godzilla and the scenes of destruction but the human story elements seen in Monsters seem to have been lost.
Since this is listed as a US-Japan production, I expected more of a Japanese input into the story. This seemed to be there in the first third but was lost once the US military became involved. Ken Watanabe’s performance in the equivalent role to Shimura Takeshi in the original is largely wasted. Watanabe has appeared in several Hollywood films in order to entice Japanese audiences but in this case I suspect that the monster Godzilla is the main attraction and the script registers his presence in only a perfunctory manner once the back story has been delivered. Similarly, Juliette Binoche appears on screen for only a few minutes and a fine actor like Sally Hawkins is also wasted. Never having seen Breaking Bad I didn’t know what to expect from Bryan Cranston but he too disappears after the opening scenes. Too much of the film depends on Aaron Johnson-Taylor, now beefed up from the young British actor who played John Lennon in Nowhere Boy (UK 2009) with some panache. I haven’t been impressed by his subsequent performances in films like Albert Nobbs (2011) or Anna Karenina (2012) which seemed rather ‘one-note’. Here he is action hero – although much of the time he is actually the ‘human witness’ of Godzilla’s actions. I didn’t recognise him and he could have been one of several young American actors. Gareth Edwards has professed his admiration for early Spielberg films such as Close Encounters of the Third Kind and Jaws which do have their ‘human stories’ set against alien encounters and monsters from the deep. It’s possible to see that this could have been developed in Godzilla but again the opportunity has not been taken. Elizabeth Olsen as Taylor-Johnson’s wife is another under-used character.
So, I’m left puzzling over the multi-national casting of the film – is it simply a blockbuster convention and a cynical attempt to appear global – or is it Edwards attempt to make the cast his own? I’m sure Edwards spent most of his time trying to visualise Godzilla for the CGI technicians and perhaps the human stories took second place. It is a quandary. Godzilla is certainly the star of the film and the principal character but in some ways he (she?) resembles King Kong and the whole question of anthropomorphism comes up. There were moments when I felt that I wanted some kind of eye contact between Godzilla and the principal human characters – or at least the feeling that the humans understood and cared for the creature. There is something of that but the story could have made Watanabe or Hawkins/Binoche into the main human witness. Less boy’s own action and more anthropomorphism perhaps? Two other observations support that wish. The other monsters in the film (that Godzilla fights) reminded me of the ending of Quatermass and the Pit (UK 1959) in which the scientist is the witness to the monster’s end and also the Alien films in which the Ripley character faces the Alien mother. I don’t know enough about the Godzilla franchise to know whether these are worthwhile observations but I am looking forward to what Edwards might do with a further Godzilla episode.
The highlight of BIFF 2014 for me was the retrospective of films directed by Nomura Yoshitaro. Five films, all adapted from published stories by the celebrated crime fiction writer Matsumoto Seicho, were screened ranging from Stakeout (Japan 1958) to The Demon (1978). Festival director Tom Vincent worked with Nomura’s studio Shochiku and its international representative Chiaki Omori to bring prints to the UK with the assistance of the Japan Foundation, Daiwa Anglo-Japanese Foundation and the Great Britain Sasakawa Foundation. The five prints will also be screened in London at the ICA from 18 April.
I’ve blogged on each of the five films on our sister blog: http://globalfilmstudies.com/tag/nomura-yoshitaro/