Sunday, June 25, 2017

207. Japanese director Naomi Kawase’s film “Sharasoju” (Shara)(2003) (Japan) based on the director’s original screenplay: A philosophical look at life and death and one’s relationship with nature, a source of spiritual sustenance

Naomi Kawase is one of the most interesting female film directors alive and actively making films. Her films are slow moving, contemplative works that discuss the close relationship of families, of religion, of tradition, and of nature. An overarching common factor for most of her films is the inevitable cycles of life and death.

A twin brother running after other twin for no apparent reason, early in the film
(Note: Shun is touching the wall, as he would touch parked cars later
in the run as his brother does)

Shara is an intimate portrait of two contemporary nuclear Japanese families living in the old Japanese town of Nara with narrow streets, barely more than the width of a large car and yet one sees cars of many sizes parked off the narrow streets. There is tradition and there is modernity—a conflict that is often tangentially discussed in Kawase’s films.

The two families have similarities. Both have had a male member suddenly leave/disappear. (In one case, the viewer is told, a young boy was found dead—without additional explanations, while in the other family a married man disappears after a child is born to his sick wife).  In both families, the disappearance of the male member affects another member of the family deeply. A sister wears the slippers/clogs of her missing male brother; the other young boy paints the portrait of his missing dead brother from memory. The daughter of one family is drawn to the son of the other—and both are students.

The run in reverse, the surviving twin, Shun, with childhood friend Yu

Students and young love are recurring themes for director Nawase [e.g., Still the Water (2014), An/Sweet Bean (2015)]. So is death of loved ones {e.g., Mourning Forest (2007), Still the Water, An/Sweet Bean] and the dead set of lovers in Hanezu (2011) compared and contrasted with a living pair. There is birth and pregnancy in Kawase’s films as well (Shara has a lovely childbirth sequence and pregnancy is pivotal in Hanezu).

Kawase is also of one of the few directors today who consistently discuss positive interactions between the young and the old in most of her films. And finally, there are the constant references to nature (the forest in Mourning Forest, the sea in Still the Water, the cherry trees in An/Sweet Bean, the vegetable and flower garden in Shara and the mountains, spiders and other arachnids in Hanezu. In Shara, growing green eggplants in the kitchen garden with tender loving care becomes a metaphor for the love within the family, a feeling that well-meaning neighbours can appreciate.

This critic has often described Ms Kawase as the Terrence Malick of Japan and one is not sure if Ms Kawase would consider that to be a compliment as she lost out to Malick at a Cannes competition. The common factors between Malick and Kawase are too many to ignore. Malicks’ The Tree of Life and Nawase’s Shara deal with death of a young boy in the family and consequent extended bereavement.  Both films deal with childbirth. Malick’s Knight of Cups and Kawase’s Shara both deal with closeness of siblings. All the works of Malick and Kawase, deal with metaphors of nature mirroring life. Both discuss their respective religions and their importance in living and moving on despite traumatic loss of loved ones.  Both directors have a penchant for underscoring memories of precious events in individuals’ lives. Both directors prefer to film their own written original screenplays though both have adapted others' works in rare instances.

Blooming of Yu as a woman she leads the dancers of the Shara festival

Unlike Malick’s films that depend on voice-overs, much of Kawase’s films can be associated with a lack of spoken words. Wind, rain, waves, shadows and light are more important for Kawase than spoken lines. Traditional religious songs and chants take up long sequences in Shara, Still the Water and Hanezu.

Buddhist chants as a rope is revolved around by hands of devotees
young and old to the sound of chants

bviously for Kawase young people riding bicycles are important. The similarity of such shots in several Kawase’s films is too obvious for a viewer to miss. Now Nara has a lot of automobiles parked in front of their houses. Yet never during the entire length of Shara, shot entirely in Nara, was a car, bus or truck shown moving on screen. There is one shot of a two-wheeled moped in action. That was the single sign of automation in the entire film.

Shara has two important sequences where young people are running. Early in the film we are shown two brothers (twins?) running through empty streets touching parked cars. Towards the end of the film two youngsters –a girl and a boy run on similar empty streets.  Though the runs are visually striking and important sequences, the lack of people and vehicles on the route make the runs almost dreamlike and unreal.  One wonders if that was Kawase’s intention as the entire camera movements of the film Shara appears as though it were  a perspective of an individual who recollects the past events.
Traditional amulets from Yu to Shun (In Kawase's films it is the women
who initiates, not men)

Shara is important for Kawase watchers as this is a rare film in which she acts in a major role, directs, provides the original script, and serves as one of the three co-editors. In this film, viewers see Kawase first as a slim young mother of twin boys, and later, for most of the film, as an older  housewife in an advanced stage of pregnancy who delivers a child capturing the entire event.

Shara is equally important because it does not spoon-feed the viewer. A diligent viewer of the film will note the perspective provided by the camera movements as the film opens and later in the closing stages when the camera behaves like an intelligent being that seems to quietly intrude and inspect the activities just as Aleksandr Sokurov’s camera in his famous Russian Ark (2002), a film made just a year before Shara.  It also indicates why Shun’s (the main boy) brother Kei’s strange unexplained death is never shown on screen but evidently is well accepted by the families.

For the perceptive viewer: Yu (Shun's girlfriend) walks by the same wall
Shun touched 17 years ago, on the initial run,  when he lost his twin brother

Kawase’s writing accomplishes two things. One is to provide scope for the camera to “talk” and move as a human interloper and the second is to ensure participation of an entire town in an energetic, ritualistic song and dance on the street. The latter exercise provides an avenue for traditions to be continued by younger people and for young Yu (the girl) to bloom as a lady both in the eyes of her foster mother Shouko (a strikingly beautiful and elegant Japanese actress, Kanako Higuchi). That sequence provides action and energy in a film bereft of action except for the two running sequences.

What does the title Shara mean, one could ask? My friend Michael Kerpan was kind enough to inform me that the original Japanese title of the film Sharasoju could mean sandalwood/sandalwood incense or even a sal tree. One wonders why the film is called Shara when its meaning is not clear to non-Japanese audiences.

For the lazy viewer, Shara will indeed appear to be dreary, pointless film. Kawase merges spirituality and nature in a unique way, film after film. For the attentive viewer, Shara will prove to be a clever and delightful film where the viewer is encouraged to ponder over minute details and savour them. Every work of Kawase is amazing and Shara is no exception.

P.S. This critic has reviewed Kawase’s Mourning Forest (2007), Hanezu (2011) Still the Water (2014) and An/Sweet Bean (2015) on the blog. (You can access each review by clicking on the names of the films). So are reviews of the Malick films The Tree of Life and Knight of Cups, mentioned in the above review. Mourning Forest is included on the author’s top 15 films of the 21st Century. Ms Kawase is also one of the author's 15 favourite active filmmakers (see list at