Pedro Gonzáles-Rubio’s “Inori” (Japanese for prayer) is set in Kannogawa, Japan, a dying town. There’s no menacing factory in the background spewing smoke or a horrible natural disaster in the recent past haunting the town. In fact, the environment we’re introduced to is serenely beautiful; a misty mountain showing off with its thick forests. The ancient land is treated patiently and meditatively by Gonzáles-Rubio’s camera, giving the sense that this place is eternal. It’s only the human life that’s fading away.
The remaining residents of Kannogawa are anchored by their tradition, but abandoned by the children who have rejected it. They remember a time when three generations living in their homes was a standard and now, filling the spot of the eldest generation, they find themselves without the support or presence of the younger two, which creates a micro “Children of Men” scenario. The nurseries have all closed along with the high schools. When the remaining members of this generation pass away, Kannogawa will simply turn into a ghost town.
“Inori” is Mexican director Gonzáles-Rubio’s second feature as a solo director following up his fantastic “Alamar,” a gorgeous film about a father and son trying to imprint a childhood’s worth of memories and lessons into a brief pocket of time leading to the son’s new life overseas with his mother. Parent-child relationships are also a theme in “Inori,” though only in the past tense. The film floats around the lives on the town’s remaining residents, taking a specific interest in two. Sakou Fukui is the elderly, yet energized, on and off focal point for much of the film. Unwilling to allow the loneliness of her empty home consume her, she ventures out to forage for naturally growing ingredients to create soup, chat with the other folks committing to the town, or visiting the local clinic to engage in equal parts physical therapy and conversation.
At the clinic, Mrs. Fukui presents the clearest picture of the town’s situation. Her children have all moved away to cities and started their own families, leaving her behind. The middle son she doesn’t hear from often, a fact to which she darkly declares, “When he dies I’ll hear about it!”
Despite the cold shoulder from her children, there is no bitterness to be detected in Mrs. Fukui. If it’s there at all, she’s too excited to show off her town and share her homemade food with the men behind the camera to let it read. Her pride in the town is joyous and memory-filled in a way that inspires. Even her praying is infectious; at one point the camera suddenly finds her mid prayer in one of the less expertly composed static frames, sensing the energy Mrs. Fukui emits. A lifetime engagement with her home has racked up enough memories and relationships to keep her cheery in the face of abandonment. To sever herself from Kannogawa would be more of a loss than anything she could gain from moving into the cities. No wonder she stays.
Carrying as much weight throughout the film is Mr. Okada, the stoic shop owner keeping watch on the main highway that runs through town. Of the few people we meet in the town, he is the most on the edge of exiting. When vehicles pass by he stops what he’s doing to watch and wait for the delivery of something new. Perhaps he’s waiting for someone to invite him along. He admits at one point that if his parents were not buried here, he would have left long ago.
This loyalty to the dead and commitment to death itself is the quiet engine of “Inori.” There is much talk about the way things used to be and how it could be better, but eventually, and not far off, all these voices will cease. At one point the sound recordist stands in frame with his boom mic aimed at the leaves of a tree animated by the breeze coming off the mountain, providing a counter-point to the humans insisting that they are a part of this world. As one resident puts it, the people in the town will die off and the mountain will once again just be a mountain.
There are several punctuating moments throughout the film, most of them during sequences when the townspeople have stopped talking and are just existing within their daily lives. The sequence with the most weight to it observes Mr. Okada first remembering how much his mother loved the plant he still vigilantly trims covering their garage. The story is sweet and sad, but only once we realize he’s taking these trimmings to burn them in ceremonious remembrance of his deceased mother can we understand how deeply rooted this man is to his home.
“Inori” breathes well in its short run time and the drift between the subjects and nature builds a surprising amount of tension for such a slow film. Peaceful and marvelous as the mountain is, it is menacing in its meaning. It pronounces that, yes, life blossomed on this mountain, but soon it will fade back into it. In the face of this, “Inori” is a gentle reminder of what culture and history look like when so much of both are disposable in modern life. [B+]