Sunday, May 16, 2021

263. Mexican film director Carlos Reygadas’ debut film “Japón” (Japan) (2002), based on his original screenplay: Fascinating debut of the talented duo of film director Reygadas and his Argentine cinematographer Diego Martinez Vignatti



My goal is to observe life and not to mystify it. What I film is simply matter that exists in the world. A person or object may have a particular meaning within the context of the film but I don’t see them as having an inherent conceptual identity. If I say the word ‘tree’, you don’t necessarily need to see the tree because you have learned since you were a child how to conceptualize the tree. In most narrative films, things—whether it’s a bird, a human body, a cloud, a car or a sound—exist as devices that only serve to tell a story. This is true for the actors as well. These types of films do not allow the viewer to see the actors as people existing in the world. Instead, the viewer sees a mask moving around in a costume and wearing lots of make-up. My goal is to bring out the individuality of each person or object and to capture something of their essence. I’m not interested in filming the mask. This is why you see the particular bodies in the films. If they are not ‘conventional’ —if they are considered old, ugly or fat—I couldn’t care less; they are all people and they are all equally beautiful. Filming people as they are is my way of showing them respect.
—Carlos Reygadas, interviewed by Paul Dallas, in Extra Extra Magazine (

As the above quote reveals, Carlos Reygadas’ film Japón is different from the films of his contemporary Mexican directors such as Guillermo del Toro (who made The Shape of Water and Pan’s Labyrinth), Alfonso Cuaron (who made Roma and Gravity), and Alejandro Gonzales Inarritu (who made Birdman and The Revenant), who have won Oscars and wide public acceptance globally. They are as different as chalk and cheese. Not just Japón but all the feature films of Reygadas, have ultra-real characters, some with physical characteristics or appearances that one would not normally associate with the typical actors and actresses in commercial films. Reygadas’ choice of actors resembles the casting choices of the famous Italian film director Pier Paolo Pasolini (who made The Gospel According to Saint Mathew with non-actors, in contrast to the Hollywood Biblicals). Again unlike his Mexican counterparts, Reygadas’ films are minimalistic in terms of dialogues, accentuating instead on sounds and visuals to communicate with the viewer, fusing the internal thoughts of characters with external visuals of nature, animals and the innocence of children.  The entire film used first time actors and it is unlikely that a viewer will easily forget their faces. It was shot on 16 mm anamorphic film stock using 2.88:1 screen aspect ratio and blown up. The outcome is amazing for such a modest technical investment.

The lame painter takes in the rural Mexico's
beauty: cacti, trees, hills and river

Japón is different from all the films mentioned above for other reasons as well. One, the name of the principal character of Japón is never revealed. The viewers of the film only get to know visually that he is lame and needs a walking stick at all times. They get to learn gradually that he is a painter, that his backpack contains painting material, that he intends to commit suicide with a gun that he carries with him and that he loves music of Shostakovich (particularly the composer’s 15th symphony) because you can hear it and that he is not religious, at least in the conventional sense, because he states as much. He has evidently travelled from an urban part of Mexico (first sequence of the film) to a carefully chosen distant rural spot of the country, where he is a stranger and has no relations. How and why he chose that village is never revealed in the film. The viewer soon realizes that the painter is a man of few words, observing more than speaking, even when spoken to. Reygadas’ use of Shostakovich’s 15th symphony, which the painter in his film shares with his benefactor widow, using earplugs, suggesting to her that he could explain the music to her but eventually does not, made this critic to delve into what was left unexplained. 

The history of this piece of music is a story by itself. The composer Shostakovich (film director Grigory Kozintsev’s close friend and his collaborator on his King Lear and Hamlet) wrote the music—his last symphony--keeping in mind the Russian intellectual and film director Yevgeny Yuvtuschenko’s poem on the suicide of another Russian intellectual Marina Tsvetaeva. Suicide and tragedy serve as the background of this Shostakovich composition, the painter listens to in JapónThe painter himself is contemplating suicide while listening to this music. 

Shostakovich's music is not the only music that adorns this beautiful film that finds beauty in what most people would consider ugly (wrinkled faces), mundane (the poor and the dirty, smelly, unhygienic persons travelling in a vehicle together in Japón), or even profane (the extreme lack of comprehension and respect for anything another person considers worth worshipping), Reygadas uses two other composers and specific works of theirs to drive home his point of view. One is Johann Sebastian Bach's Passion of St. Mathew and the other is the Estonian composer Arvo Pärt's two works Miserere and Cantus in Memory of Benjamin Britten. (The second composition of Pärt is used for the final sequences with the camera of cinematographer Vignatti circling the rail tracks capturing urban Mexico in the far distance and the flowing river to one side, with dead bodies and stones from the barn strewn around blending in a bizarre and sad way into the landscape.) Reygadas thanks Pärt in the end credits. Pärt's music is often incorporated in the films of Andrei Zvyagintsev, Terrence Malick, Michael Mann, Paolo Sorrentino, Pablo Larrain, and Leos Carax, among others.

The painter, skeptical of religion..

...and Ascen the intensely religious widow,
who believes in caring for others and loving all

Finally, why title the film as “Japan,” most viewers would ask when there is no apparent connection to that country. Would it be hara-kiri? Or is it that the landscape of this far away non-descript Mexican village offers a transcendental beauty with all its stones, trees and cacti connects with Japan in some obscure manner for one to commit suicide? When the painter does attempt suicide, it is on a cliff where a horse lies dead. Is the painter a famous one? Is the book of paintings that he carries in his backpack related to him? There is no clue offered in the film except that he is excited that his benefactor widow found one painting in the book to be very nice and he wanted her to reveal that particular painting to him.

Assimilating the stones and the trees,
the inanimate and the animate

The painter and a child--children are important
in Reygadas' films 

The suicide attempt triggers off a latent sexual urge and a possible desire to continue living. His benefactor, Ascen, is  a much older widow than the painter and she offers him food and shelter in her stone barn where her dead husband used to sleep. Ascen is a devout Catholic and explains to the painter that her name is related to the ascension of St Mary as distinct from ascension of Jesus Christ and even offers to pray for the painter, when he indicates that he is not religious. But a bond grows and a particular scene shows her physical trust in the painter as she extends her hand to him and offers to wash his clothes. That gesture of relationship gradually grows into a physical one with the painter.

Post suicide attempt, the painter lies next to 
a dead horse

The dead Ascen wearing the painter's jacket,
a "suicide" with a cosmic, religious tinge

A subplot of a devious nephew of Ascen to deprive her ownership of the stone barn so that he could sell the stones, leads to the painter pointing out that that the barn legally belongs to her. Ascen does not resist the nephew’s wiles. Her visit to the village church service/mass and her body language would appear as distant parallels to Jesus’ final days on earth. 

Japón starts as a man wanting to end his life.  Japón ends with amazing actions of love and a heavenly design of ascension of the pure in heart. Ascen, in the film, is developed as an individual with characteristics close to the Martha of the Gospels, for viewers familiar with the scriptures, providing food with love to workers who are demolishing her barn and food for a stranger staying under her roof, without being asked. Reygadas might not be religious, overtly. Yet his films show a depth of religious comprehension (biblical names of his films' characters and the term "post tenebras lux" used as a film's title are examples) that few other film directors exude. 

Reygadas can and will unsettle the purist, with his unorthodox content. Reygadas does it for a reason. When crockery falls off a table suddenly, a viewer will recall Tarkovsky's Stalker where a glass of water falls off a table--but here Reygadas relates it to the demolition of the barn, drawing the viewer's attention to the evil designs of those who only think of themselves while amassing lucre. Reygadas infuses philosophy, politics, racial harmony and uplifting innocence of children in his films, recalling the works of Tarkovsky, Paradjanov, Kozintsev, Kiesolwski, Olmi, Ruiz, Malick, and Kawase. 


P.S.  Japón only won a Cannes film festival special mention but won significant awards elsewhere: Grand Prize at the Bratislava international film festival, the Best Director awards at the Thessaloniki and the Edinburgh international film festivals, and the Best First Work award at the Havana international film festival and the Audience award at the Stockholm film festival. Reygadas’ later feature films Silent Light and Post Tenebras Lux have been reviewed earlier on my blog. The film Japón replaces Reygadas' Post Tenebras Lux on the author’s top 100 films list. Reygadas, for this author, is one of the 15 best living-and-active film directors today.