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Japan From the Outside

Japan From the Outside

Japan and Mexico joined forces this year at the Locarno Film Festival when Pedro González-Rubio’s “Inori” won the “Filmmakers of the Present” competition. “Inori” is an outstanding, peaceful, and poetic film about a ommunity in Japan’s highlands populated entirely by the elderly. Mexican director González-Rubio has made a colorful discovery of backlands that foregrounds nature’s transcendent beauty. 

González-Rubio depicts a mountain village in Kanagawa that young people have abandoned for new personal and professional opportunities. The director sensitively portrays the handful of people who remain: a man still mourning his mother’s loss; old woman living alone after her husband’s death, recounting the tales of her children who now live far away. Following these characters in their everyday lives, one realizes that the film’s focus is universal: people exist like this all over the world. 

Take the setting of González-Rubio’s 2009 film “Alamar,” in which a man and his son share a last vacation together in their native Mexico. Both “Alamar” and “Inori” examine the destinies of families in remote communities. In the case of the latter, and despite the imminent extinction of the village as a result of modernity’s impact, González-Rubio’s approach does not emphasize the sad backdrop. His shots are not elegiac but rather hopeful, capturing the beauty of a place where nature has not become a slave to mankind.

As the director observes, that beauty emerges from small moments. An elderly woman puts flowers on a grave. The camera watches her eat dinner. The experience is often one of childlike wonder, set in a very poetic representation of a town where everything is slowly coming to an end. In one of the most arresting visual contrasts, a woman’s slowed physicality goes hand in hand with a buckling dandelion.

For this project, Gonzalez-Rubio collaborated with Naomi Kawase, who produced “Inori” and first brought the town to his attention. Locarno showed a retrospective of Kawase’s films in its “Histoire(s) du Cinema” section: “Embracing,” “Katatsumori,” “Kya Ka Ra Ba A,” “Tarachime,” and her most recent film “Chiri.” All are dedicated to family and in particular to the grandmother who raised her.

Language barriers can make Japan a difficult country for outsiders to understand. Without help from the Japanese, a film like “Inori” could not be made. With Kawase on his side, González-Rubio managed to create a sensitive film that sees Japan through a foreigner’s eyes without condescending to it. His view on Japan shows an unequivocally beautiful country -– a perspective Kawase (or perhaps any director telling a story of their home country) could not achieve. González-Rubio tries not to explain the reason for the way of life these people have, so that their lonely existence remains a mystery. Why do they remain in this solitary place? Is it an expression of their love for their own traditions or just a way of maintaining closeness to the natural world? None of this has to be answered because these questions do not arise. “Inori” doesn’t judge; it simply exhibits.

Claudia Piwecki is a member of Indiewire’s Critics Academy at the Locarno Film Festival. She lives in Basel, Switzerland, where she is the chief editor of the cultural section of www.semestra.ch, and is enrolled in a Master’s program in cultural studies. Click here to read all of the Academy’s work.

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