Wednesday, April 29, 2015

176. Japanese director Naomi Kawase’s “Still the Water” (Futatsume no mado) (2014): A perspective on death, grief, and continuity for those alive and questioning their lives’ meaning

Naomi Kawase stated that she expected to win the Golden Palm at the 2014 Cannes film festival for her film Still the Water during a press conference but she was disappointed. All the awards and attention were instead grabbed by the Russian film Leviathan and the Turkish film Winter Sleep, both competing with the Japanese film for the honors. But a close evaluation proves there was very little differentiating the three awesome films, except for the cultural differences of the subjects in each of the three films.

Trees and the sea enveloping growing minds 

This critic had described Ms Kawase as the Terrence Malick of Japan on this blog in February 2012 while reviewing her previous work Hanezu, which had lost out to Malick’s The Tree of Life at Cannes for the top honor of 2011 at that festival. But if you ask a Japanese cineaste about Terrence Malick he or she is likely to call Malick the ‘Kawase of USA.’ And for good reason—Kawase’s 2007 film The Mourning Forest was about loss of loved ones, death and regeneration, while Malick’s 2011 film The Tree of Life also dealt with death and reconciliation with a larger cycle of life. Both dealt with the sun and the trees/forest. Only for Malick the loss is often of the young, while for Kawase, the loss is often of adults. For Malick, the references are Christian theology and scriptures; for Kawase it’s Buddhist scriptures and shamanism.  For both directors, nature teaches humans to live a better life by observing nature, not resisting it.

Kyoko swims in the sea wearing her school uniform

Still the Water begins with visuals and sounds of the wrath of the sea only to be followed by visuals of the quiet sea where a schoolgirl goes swimming in her school uniform. Yes, the waters can be stilled, philosophically. What matters is our attitude.

Like most Kawase's films, there is a death of an elder that provides the fulcrum of the film. Kawase’s choice of the beautiful Makiko Watanabe (who plays Kyoko’s dying mother in Still the Water and a minor role of Wakako in The Mourning Forest) is laudable and elevate the quality of both films. Preceding the death of the elder in Still the Water is a cruel, unsavory killing of a goat by an old man watched by a young person that almost makes you leave the auditorium unless you know Kawase’s visuals have a purpose beyond shock and gore. The old man pats with affection the goat that he has just killed.  (This is the second important film in recent times that begins with the graphic killing of an animal, the first being Emir Baigazin’s Kazhak film Harmony Lessons (2013), winner of a Silver Bear at the Berlin film festival,  only to be followed by a contrarian humanist story.)  While the gore repulses the viewer, the films use these scenes to prepare the viewer for deeper thought as the films unspool. The death of goat/sheep is contrasted with peaceful death of young Kyoko’s lovely mother dying in the company of her caring husband and daughter from an unspecified disease. The ‘waters’ of the film are metaphorically stilled. “Mother’s soul will be part of you,” Kyoko is told in consolation. A large banyan tree, occupies some space in the movie's script and visuals, with drooping branches and aerial prop roots that grows into thick woody trunks making it difficult to distinguish them from the main trunk.

Wisdom of the elders for the young

Much of Kawase’s films have autobiographical touches. Kawase’s father had abandoned her when she was young and she was brought up by her grandmother. In Still the Water, the young shy boy Kaito, is being raised by his mother after his father has left the village to live in the city blaming the circumstances on ‘fate’. Thus both the youngsters in the film suffer from a missing parent whom they love. The girl loves the sea, while the boy is afraid of water. Early in the film a wise old man comments:  “These kids don’t know what lies in the sea.”  Animate and inanimate objects have relevance in the films of Malick and Kawase in equal measure.  Both are visual poets of nature, life and death. 

Halcyon days: Father, daughter, and the sick mother during a light interlude

Kawase’s handling of Kyoko’s mother’s death is truly unforgettable. The mother, a shaman, dies holding her daughter’s hand as the villagers sing the mother’s favorite song. Friends come to sing and dance as the mother dies reminiscent of an Irish wake.

For Kawase, memory of successive generations lives in trees and forests (The Mourning Forest and Still the Water), and rocks (Hanezu) and life is eternal (the arachnids of Hanezu and roots of the banyan trees in Still the Water.)  The most interesting line Kawase provides in Still the Water is “Young people should be brave to leave us elders to pick up the pieces.” 

The banyan tree as a metaphor of life

The tale of life, death and love as it affects two young people in a Japanese village on the forlorn island of Amami is scripted by the Japanese director herself. The appeal of what she provides as cinematic visuals and storyline could be eclectic to Occidental viewers but it would appeal more to the Oriental mind that seeks spiritual connection with nature and respects the forces of nature.  She might not have won the admiration of Cannes with Still the Water but this work is her most engaging work since she made The Mourning Forest.  The love tale of the boy and the girl is submerged by the sea of philosophical thought the film attempts to provide. Most other directors would have been inclined to do just the opposite.  The unknown killer of Kyoko’s mother’s lover is never revealed.  The detail is peripheral for Kawase; instead the effect of the death on other characters is more important for her. That is where we need to admire Kawase, she is different from the regular filmmaker.  For this critic, Kawase is the finest living active filmmaker of Japan today.

P.S. Kawase’s earlier films Hanezu and The Mourning Forest have been reviewed in detail earlier on this blog.  Still the Water is one of the author’s top 10 films of 2014Ms Kawase is also one of the author's 15 favourite active filmmakers.