Naomi Kawase is arguably the most interesting active Japanese director today. Her cinematic themes are intrinsically correlated with Asian traditions and these aspects that weave into her films’ plots could easily be lost on occidental sensibilities. Like the cinema of Terrence Malick, Kawase’s cinematic works are deeply entwined with what humans perceive in nature. Like Malick, Kawase’s plots frequently refer to souls of the dead. And finally like Malick, Kawase inevitably touches on the importance of passing on traditional wisdom and cultural sensibilities from generation to generation, which the present generation tends to overlook while running the modern rat race of survival. Years before Mallick made his The Tree of Life (2011), Kawase had dealt with a Japanese cinematic tale that dealt with sense of loss and emptiness one feels in the aftermath of the death of two beloved family members in her feature film The Mourning Forest (2007) and the subsequent ability of the lead character to comprehend the deeper meanings of life and death by an unusual, unplanned trip into a forest with an elderly gentleman. There appears to be one major difference between the two directors: Malick takes the viewer beyond the earth and our immediate physical environs to comprehend the larger cosmic and spiritual scheme of life and death, while Kawase gets entrenched with a similar quest in the immediate environs of Japan and its history, allowing for death of a near one to be the key to understand the larger meanings of life and death. And interestingly both Malick’s The Tree of Life and Kawase’s The Mourning Forest are movies built on scripts developed by the directors themselves.
What then is the connection of Kawase’s The Mourning Forest and her latest work Hanezu? Kawase’s Hanezu marks a small departure for the lady director—the script she has written for Hanezu is not her own but based on a Japanese novel written by Masako Bando. For the first time, Kawaze, who has also served as the cinematographer for her many earlier documentary films, chose to be the cinematographer for this feature film, probably realizing that colour and visuals were crucial for the viewer to appreciate Hanezu more than in the case of The Mourning Forest. In Hanezu, Kawase has picked up a novel that resonates well with her earlier work The Mourning Forest, where an old widower totally consumed in love for his dead wife makes a quixotic pilgrimage to his wife’s grave in the forest from his old age home. He has a reason—he had been writing his letters to his dead wife expressing his untiring love and devotion and these letters had to be ‘delivered to her’ within 33 years of her death. His young nurse follows him into the forest and the actions of the senile man who loves his wife so intensely serves as a solace to the nurse who has herself much to grieve with a recent death of her own child. Much of the impact of Kawaze’s Hanezu on a viewer will be lost if the viewer has not seen The Mourning Forest.
Hanezu is a tale of a woman Kayoko living with a man, Tetsuya. It is not clear whether they are married or not. The lady is in love with another man named Takumi who is a sculptor. The sculptor and his lady love cook and eat together and even go to a Buddhist temple together. The story takes place in the Asaka region of Japan. The sculptor and his lady love have grandparents who were also in love a long while ago but never married. In the Asaka region, many denizens wait for closure of their hopes and loves. Kayoko belongs to the new generation, impatient and impetuous. She suddenly states that she is bearing a child and this information leads to interesting outcomes. There is no clear indication as to who is the father of the child. The outcome of the revelation is unpredictable.
Hanezu has many facets that are similar to The Mourning Forest. Like The Mourning Forest, Hanezu is also a tale of two sets of lovers, separated in time. One individual from each set do converge briefly in both films. These meetings would not have any importance if the viewer of the film and the characters in the film do not absorb or understand the lesson being conveyed from one generation to another, with nature’s flora and fauna adding visual clues to understand those lessons. The images of forest and humans in The Mourning Forest and the many shots of arachnids in Hanezu facilitate the transfer of knowledge for the lead characters.
Nature is an important key to appreciating any film by Kawase (and Malick!). I quote the following statement of Ms Kawase from the Cannes film festival press kit: “I live with the idea that I am a part of nature. In modern times, under the illusion that we are greater than all things, humans have destroyed nature, isolated themselves from nature, and failed to live in coexistence. I think the suffering that people experience in modern society stems from a failure to recognize ourselves as part of nature. You could say that humans actually play supporting roles in my films. I portray nature in a central role because I want to reawaken in the characters the sense of the blessings of nature and awe toward nature that people felt in the past; I want them to coexist with nature, in the truest sense. This is because I consider it something important that should be passed on to my child and to the children of the future.”
Hanezu begins with a shot of soil being excavated. The end of the film has a statement that the cinematic work is dedicated to ancient history buried within the soil being excavated in the Asuka region of Japan. What is the connection? In the press kit provided during the Cannes film festival, the following statement from the filmmaker throws light on the film “The Asuka region is the birthplace of Japan. Here, in ancient times, there were those who fulfilled their lives in the midst of waiting. Modern people, apparently having lost this sense of waiting, seem unable to feel grateful for the present, and cling to the illusion that all things will move constantly forward, according to one’s own plan.” And it is not surprising for this critic to note that the director herself was born and lives in Nara, situated in the very same place where Japan’s oldest capital once stood, and is supposed to be the centre of Japanese culture. Kawase’s films constantly refer to ancient tales and tradition constantly weaving modern tales with those of the past. It is left for the viewer to comprehend the connections between the present and the past and absorb the larger picture.
Hanezu begins with a strange statement of two mountains vying with each other to earn the affection of a third. The strange fact is that three mountains exist to this day. As the film Hanezu unfolds there is a woman and two men who love her, not unlike the mountains. And a careful viewing of the film presents a mirror image of a love tale of unfulfilled triangle involving grandparents of the contemporary lovers of Hanezu. Kawase seems to suggest that there is a karma of the previous generations that the present cannot shrug off. It is then the conception of a child, suicide of a lover, the ability to devour with relish the food prepared by a lover link up with nature’s mirror of the lives of spiders and other arachnids that come into focus and make sense to the viewer. When a Kawase character bicycles off after nonchalantly stating to her lover that she is pregnant, it would seem odd to a viewer who has grown up on Hollywood celluloid tales. Not so, if one cares to accept the patterns of the spider’s web in one’s Asian histories and traditions. Kawase’s cinema is poetic and different from the usual commercial cinema.
The film’s title Hanezu was chosen with considerable deliberation. Hanezu is a shade of red. According to the filmmaker, it is an ancient word that appears in the 8th century poetry collection, the Manyoshu. According to that literary work, it is possible that red was the first colour that humans recognized, and that its meaning comes from its association with blood, the sun, and flame. Those three elements are, in turn, symbolic of life itself. At the same time, red is a fragile colour that fades easily. Both of these aspects are incorporated in the title. Kawase explains her choice of the film’s title in an interview “By resurrecting an ancient word in the present, I wanted Japanese - who aren’t familiar with this word—to savour its meaning. No one can know the reality that lies in the ground, but my role as one who lives in the present is perhaps to turn an ear to the voices of the dead and to weave a tale. What does it mean to live as a person within the unavoidable transience of life - the flux of the waxing and waning moon, people’s hearts, the era, time? I believe there is a deeper truth in the tales of nameless people who are hidden in the shadows of major events and neglected by the trivial riches of the daily media.”
In the film Hanezu, there is blood, there is the sun, and there is the flame. At several points in the film, the viewer is nudged to notice repetitive actions in nature as well as actions of ancestors to better understand and appreciate the ongoing tale of love between a woman and two men—one an artist who believes in freedom and one a scientist who believes in rearing caged birds. One lover shops for his groceries at the nearby store, while the other grows his own food.
In an interview included in the press kit of her film, Kawase stated, “In the poems of the Manyoshu, the ancients who lived without cars or airplanes had to wait for their loved ones to visit, no matter how much they longed to see them. And they wrote these feelings of futility into their poems. They expressed their feelings by transferring them to the flowers and fruits of the season. Ours is an era when things circulate even when they are out of season. Under the illusion that this (anything, anytime) is richness and living their lives surrounded by all this, contemporary people seem to have banished “waiting” and live their lives centred on activity. If someone doesn’t respond, prod them. In all aspects of work, speed is given priority. But didn’t those ancients, in the sensibility of “waiting,” actually have a larger sense of scale than we have today? It was from this perspective that I put a sense of “waiting” into the film. Compiled between the late 7th and late 8th centuries, the Manyoshu is Japan’s oldest existing collection of poetry. It has some 4,500 poems. They were written by people from a wide range of social strata, from Japan’s emperors to nameless farmers, living throughout Japan from the Northeast down to Kyushu. Many of the poems concern love between men and women. Also, in ancient times, people were in awe of nature and revered it, believing that gods inhabited the mountains and rivers. It was an era when people lived in tandem with nature, and nature’s presence is rich in the poems of the Manyoshu. “Manyoshu” literally means “collection of 10,000 leaves,” but it is thought that the title was chosen to suggest “10,000 ages,” or a collection that would be passed down for eternity.”
There is more of Terrence Malick in Naomi Kawase though there is no evidence that she might be his admirer. It comes through in their similarity of dealing with their actors. Says Kawase in an interview “When I make a film set in Nara, I have actors who live in Tokyo come to live in Nara for a month before shooting starts. I ask them to become a person from that area, to eat the local food and become friends with the local people. I ask them to learn how to live as if they were born there and had lived there all their lives. As actors begin to settle into lives in that environment, their expressions become more natural. They no longer just read the words of the script, memorize them, and use their bodies to express them; they forget the words, experience and internalize them, and their bodies begin to move naturally. The environment shapes and creates the actor. We do not rehearse. Rather, I try to film with just one take. The actors have created their characters in that environment, so it’s not possible for me, as director, to tell them to be something different. That would be like changing the life of a person who has lived in reality. Rather, while creating the environment, I have long and frequent discussions with the actors, and establish the environment that way.”
While Kawase’s The Mourning Forest was relatively easier to comprehend and appreciate, Hanezu packs in so much more traditional information and clues of visual association, making the film relatively more difficult exercise to appreciate, especially if you were not Asian or Japanese. For instance, the visual connection of a Japanese soldier in the Second World War trudging with a love letter that he never sent to his beloved could befuddle many a viewer. Yet, it fits in with the intertwining concept of love, death and waiting which are the essential bits of the film. Hanezu is not an easy film to appreciate. Neither is any film of Malick, Raoul Ruiz, Claire Denis, or Semih Kaplanoglu, easy to appreciate.