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Rotterdam Dispatch 2: The Work of Mourning—Recent Japanese Cinema

Rotterdam Dispatch 2: The Work of Mourning—Recent Japanese Cinema

For the first time in nearly twenty years, domestic films in Japan have outsold foreign imports at the box office. Adding to this the fact that Naomi Kawase’s The Mourning Forest, Kobayashi Masahiro’s The Rebirth, and Takeshi Kitano’s Glory to the Filmmaker! all won major prizes at international film festivals in the past year, and it would seem that Japanese cinema is experiencing its own rebirth of sorts (though significant developments have long been underway). For all the renewed vitality, however, the three films are notably elegiac in tone or subject matter. In each there’s a sense of aftermath, but distance doesn’t necessarily bring clarity or well-being. As one character observes in The Mourning Forest, there’s a difference between being alive and feeling alive, and all three films hover on that borderline. Their characters live on after the fact, and each, in their own way, attempts to make sense of the wreckage.

The Mourning Forest (Mogari no mori, Naomi Kawase, Japan)
*Grand Prix winner at Cannes

The Rebirth (Ai no yokan, Kobayashi Masahiro, Japan)
*Golden Leopard winner at Locarno

The two most recent films of Naomi Kawase and Kobayashi Masahiro (one of the festival’s Filmmakers in Focus), each relatively new filmmakers (both Kawase and Masahiro made their first features in 1996), both treat the death of family members through the encounter with strangers, or semi-strangers. In Kawase’s The Mourning Forest, the young Machiko (Machiko Ono) begins working at a retirement home after the death of her young son. There she treats Shigeki (Shigeki Uda), who apparently suffers from dementia, though, as he imagines and grasps for his deceased wife, his is more a condition of intense melancholy. Through their developing friendship—one of the most touching images is that of Shigeki and Machiko hiding from and chasing each other amid rows of scalloped hedges—they begin the work of mourning, retreating into the forest, but doing so together and through each other. Though beautifully shot with long, lingering vistas of the misty forest and closely tracked handheld camerawork, there’s still something too pristine and neat about Kawase’s film, and this is made clear through Masahiro’s example.

The Rebirth is a taut and conceptually rigorous film, built largely on the mundane and repetitive tasks of daily life, and with most of the dialogue dropping out entirely after the first ten minutes. The film demands a level of patience not usually required even in art-house cinema, and more than a few people walked out of the theater midway through. But like Chantal Akerman’s masterpiece, Jeanne Dielman, 23 quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles, its relentless drive to repetition and order sharpens our perceptual awareness that much more, so that when things quietly shift, they do so with a tremendous roar. Following the fatal stabbing of a teenage girl by her classmate, the single parents of each child both relocate to the Hokkaido countryside, where, coincidentally or not, their lives continually intersect. Noriko (Makiko Watanabe, who also played the luminous Wakake in The Mourning Forest), the mother of the perpetrator, is at a loss to explain her daughter’s actions, but is nevertheless wracked by guilt and grief. She works in the kitchen of the dormitory where the widower Junichi (played by Masahiro himself) resides, and he has left his job as a Tokyo journalist to shovel hot coals in a local factory.

Where The Mourning Forest gets metaphysically lost in the woods,The Rebirth is steadfastly rooted in the banal realities of ordinary life. Hokkaido, normally viewed as a warm tourist destination, is depicted as a wintery wasteland, devoid of people and warmth. Noriko literally keeps her head down, her long bangs obscuring her face, and when she walks, even indoors, it’s as if she’s always cold. And Junichi, slow and deliberate in all his movements, leaves his glasses on even as they fog over during his nightly bath: he’s unwilling to let down his guard, even for an instant. They struggle to connect but can hardly face each other; each leaves a gift of a cell phone to the other, but these mostly end up in the trash, unused. The Rebirth is full of false starts and failed missives, but for Noriko and Junichi, linked to the same, awful experience, being near each other may be enough.

Glory to the Filmmaker! (Kantoku banzai, Takeshi Kitano, Japan)
*Glory to the Filmmaker award at Venice

Like Takeshis before it, Kitano’s latest exploit is at times maddening and utterly indecipherable. And though it may be, as many critics have charged, naval-gazing at its worst, the self-reflexive magnifying glass here seems to have the effect of aiming concentrated light at the subject, gradually burning away the man at its center. For the first half at least, Glory to the Filmmaker! is a chronicle of failed film projects attempted by Kitano, wryly observed by a somewhat contemptuous narrator. Kitano and his companion, a life-size dummy version of himself (it looks like a three-dimensional Mii) try out different genres, from yakuza film, Ozu-style family drama, and tear-jerker melodrama, to period drama and swordfighting, and fails every time. Everything’s been done before, and moreover everything’s been done by Kitano before. As the film progresses, there’s a pronounced sense of acceleration, that the things done over the course of Kitano’s television and film careers are beginning to run together and collide. Each project is abandoned nearly as soon as it is begun—even the title of the film only gets as far as “GLOR” —and through it all Kitano, like his dummy, is expressionless, his face barely registering the change in sets and costume.

The second half of the film is ostensibly the sci-fi thriller, The Promised Day, yet that quickly becomes something else, a farce resembling ‘Beat’ Takeshi’s broad and often vulgar television slapstick, perhaps, though it might be more related to surrealism. Primary colors abound in grotesque saturation, as a mother schemes to marry off her daughter (who ventriloquizes a stuffed goosed under her arm) to a wealthy man. But this is only the thinnest of narratives: as Luis Buñuel said of Un Chien Andalou, the film wasn’t meant to make any sense, but to incite people to murder.

Glory to the Filmmaker! is less disorienting than Takeshis but more brutally nihilistic. It takes the two figures of Kitano, ‘Beat’ Takeshi the television comedian and actor and Takeshi Kitano the auteur, and adds to them the dummy, a distilled caricature of Kitano whose mute performance is uncannily similar to its model. With each failed project, the dummy is the one who bears the brunt of the consequence. Hung, drowned, and beaten, it’s killed every time something goes wrong, and though it always comes back shiny and resilient, Kitano’s metaphoric death each time suggests a bleak outlook for the filmmaker. Though the new Venice Film Festival award, named after the film, recognizes lifetime achievement, the film itself is hardly a celebration. It’s always been impossible to predict where Kitano’s going, but here it doesn’t seem he knows any better than the rest of us.
—Genevieve Yue

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