One of the aims of the Japan Foundation Film Tour is to introduce UK audiences to aspects of Japanese culture and this title fulfils that role more directly than most. The insistency of the importance of craft skills is a key feature of both Japanese arts and crafts and industry and commerce. In recent years I can remember watching films about the art of sushi preparation and achieving the perfect ramen dish. The titular character of this film is Haruka (Honda Nao), a young office worker in Tokyo who is unfulfilled by her job and her life in general. One day, accompanying her boss on a shopping trip, she is taken into an exhibition of Bizen ware pottery in a department store. Unaccountably, she falls in love with a large plate in the small exhibition and, noting the potter’s name, she determines to seek him out.
Bizen is an area in the prefecture of Okayama in the South of Honshu, the main island of Japan and some 4 or 5 hours from Tokyo by train. The main pottery centre is Imbe and Haruka decides to visit the town to see if she can find the potter Wakatake. Bizen ware dates back to the 16th century but could be linked to earlier pottery styles. In danger of dying out in the 20th century, it was maintained by a small number of potters until in 1982 it was designated a ‘traditional Japanese craft’ by the Japanese government with around 300 potters at the start of the 21st century (see Wikipedia entry). This film is a fiction but it seems to be accurate in terms of the processes and the potteries shown.
When Haruka arrives she struggles in the heat of summer to find Wakatake’s pottery but by chance meets an older man who directs her to the building. She doesn’t realise it yet but the older man is a ‘National Treasure’, an official designation for a skilled craftsman now mainly retired. When Haruka meets Wakatake he is incommunicative and unwelcoming. Haruka is persistent and eventually when the ‘National Treasure’ re-appears he tells Wakatake that he will never become a great potter if he doesn’t communicate with people and express this in his work. He suggests that Wakatake should accept Haruka as an apprentice and she readily agrees although she has been treated quite rudely. Unperturbed, Haruka returns to Tokyo to settle her affairs and starts as an apprentice in Imbe.
Wakatake Osamu is a highly-skilled potter but he has not got over the deaths of his parents. His father was a master craftsman who taught his son well but the stressful life of the potter is an issue for someone with poor mental health. The second section of the film sees Haruka trying to find a way around her master’s ‘prickliness’ and refusal to teach her directly. She must watch and listen (and do the chores). It occurred to me that this is the Japanese way of learning ‘on the job’ that was used in the Japanese film industry of the 1930s and is discussed in Kurosawa Akira’s writings. In the UK this used to be called ‘sitting next to Nelly’. It’s a time-consuming process but a long apprenticeship conducted in this way can work very well. It then requires proper support when the apprentice has to ‘fly solo’ for the first time. It wouldn’t really make sense to pad the film narrative out to cover several years so I think the process we see is time-compressed and geared to the annual calendar in Imbe.
Each year Imbe holds a Bizen festival with demonstrations and exhibitions which has become a tourist attraction. After this in the Autumn the potters begin firing the kilns. This is particularly stressful because of the qualities of the local clay which require the kilns to reach a very high temperature but to do so gradually. They must be watched and fed with wood 24 hours a day over several days – this is when the strain becomes very great. If the process fails, the potter could lose all the pieces produced in the previous season. I don’t want to spoil the narrative, but you can probably guess what happens with carefully orchestrated setbacks and later triumphs.
Haruka’s Pottery is an independent film whereas all the other titles I’ve seen on the tour have been from major studio brands or affiliated, established distributors. It was still shot in ‘Scope but with a debut writer-director and a largely inexperienced cast and crew, apart from the two actors playing Wakatake (Hirayama Hiroyuki) and the ‘National Treasure’ (Sasano Takashi). It’s also slightly problematic that there are relatively few promotional websites with details of the production or useful materials. The film actually looks pretty good with only two main locations, a brief section in Tokyo and then most of the set-ups in Imbe. The music score comprises slow and gentle piano with what sounded like folk music sequences. The narrative is fairly predictable and the leisurely running time of just under two hours could perhaps be reduced, but the main attraction of the film is the detailed illustration of the potter’s technique and the process of firing the pieces in the kiln. The human story is about how the apprentice helps to ‘humanise’ her ‘master’ allowing him to express himself through his work and to deal with the loss of his parents. There are flashbacks in which we see him as a boy with his parents. For Haruka it is a case of finding something she loves to do and finding herself through the challenges that working with Wakatake and struggling with the techniques of the wheel and the kiln that are thrown up for her. As a takeaway message about Japanese culture, the film stresses that great art needs ‘soul’ – something of the potter must be in the pot and the more the potter gives, the more pleasing the piece will be.
I did worry that this would be too ‘nice’ a film but I enjoyed it for what it is – an entertaining and informative film and a nice contrast to some of the more dramatic films that appeared in my selection from the Japan Foundation Tour.
The trailer below lacks English subs. Below it is a link to the Japan Foundation Q&A and discussion about the film.