Production Company: WOWOW, Bandai Visual
Release: 1 November 1997
Length: 95 min.
Format: 35 mm
Director: Kawase Naomi
Producers: Sento Takenori, Kobayashi Koji
Photography: Tamura Masaki
Music: Shigeno Masamichi
Art Director: Yoshida Etsuko
Editing: Kakesu Shuichi
Kozo: Kunimura Jun
Michiru: Ono Machiko
Sachiko: Izumi Sachiko
Eisuke: Shibata Kotaro
Yasuyo: Kamimura Yasuyo
Betting On a Long Shot
Kawase Naomi’s rise to stardom has been nothing less than astronomical. Just a year ago, she was known only to experimental film aficionados as a talented 8mm filmmaker who won of a couple of prizes at the Image Forum Festival and the Yamagata International Documentary Film Festival (where I helped program her work).
But since May of this year, after she was graced with the Camera D’Or for best new director at the illustrious Cannes Film Festival for her first 35mm feature Suzaku, she has become the darling of the media: even her marriage last week to her producer, Sento Takenori, was reported with the bravura normally reserved for a budding idol’s nuptials.
The big treatment, however, seems unbefitting of someone known for such small films. Her 1992 Embracing (“Ni tsutsumarete”) and the 1994 Katatsumori were both highly acclaimed personal documentaries, made by herself about the people around her: the former a touching search for her long lost father and the latter a gentle portrait of the grandmother who raised her.
The leap to a 35mm commercial feature thus presented quite a challenge for Kawase. Though the result has been justly celebrated, it shows a director still uncertain of her field.
She does tread familiar waters in Suzaku. The film is set in the mountains just south of her native Nara, in a small hamlet that is steadily losing population after a railroad project, on which the region laid its hopes for development, was canceled. Kawase’s focus, however, is not on these socio-economic changes, but on the relationships within a family that slowly disintegrates within these conditions over 15 years.
This household is, like the one Kawase herself grew up in, a little out of the ordinary. There’s not just Kozo (Kunimura Jun), his wife Yasuyo (Kamimura Yasuyo), daughter Michiru (Ono Machiko), and mother Sachiko (Izumi Sachiko), but also Eisuke (Shibata Kotaro), the son of Kozo’s less than reputable sister. While Kozo’s frustrations over the railroad come to represent the larger social picture, it is the innocent but impossible love Michiru holds for the brother-like Eisuke that becomes the film’s emotional center.
The approach to this world is largely that of documentary. Like the great Japanese documentarist Ogawa Shinsuke, Kawase and her staff lived with the residents of the community for some time before filming and picked a cast almost entirely composed of amateur locals (Kunimura is the only trained actor).
The result, at least at the beginning, is a delicate slice of life so true to reality it seems that dialogue and narrative action are unnecessary. The photography by Tamura Masaki, Ogawa’s cameraman, beautifully enhances the naturalness of the surroundings.
The problem is when the narrative starts in earnest, when Kozo’s frustrations drive him to suicide and Michiru’s feelings for Eisuke rise into jealousy.
Kawase chooses the long take, long shot style common to the 1980s and early 1990s, one that creates a distance between camera and characters and refuses to melodramatize. However, it also hampers the emotional sympathy between camera and subject that is Kawase’s hallmark. Perhaps recognizing this, Kawase tries to mitigate it by inserting documentary sections shot more in the style she is noted for: posed close-ups of people interacting with the camera, and shots of flowers, trees and other elements of nature. Therein she gently draws out the spirit within things, manifestations of the god Suzaku that watches over this region.
As a feature-length narrative then, Suzaku is still rough at the edges. Some scenes are overlong and drawn out, others lack crucial narrative information. The family structure itself is hard to understand without reading the program beforehand.
Especially when Kawase inserts an 8mm film shot by Kozo into the film, it seems clear that she is still quite attached to that, her former format. As if dissatisfied with the 35mm results in Suzaku, she even returned to the region to shoot a true documentary in 8mm about the same village inhabitants called The Weald (“Somaudo monogatari”) which recently showed at the Yamagata Film Festival.
Kawase Naomi has deservedly come to public attention with a strong first feature film. But as a filmmaker so talented in working in a smaller, more personal format, it has yet to be seen how well her gentle gaze can translate onto the big screen of commercial fame.
Reviewed by Aaron Gerow
Originally appeared in The Daily Yomiuri, 6 November 1997, p. 9.
Copyright 1997: The Daily Yomiuri and Aaron Gerow