Japan (2014) Dir. Momoko Ando
Five years after her debut Kakera – A Piece Of Our Life Momoko Ando finally delivers her follow-up in the form of this 187 minute (you read that right) adaptation of her own novel 0.5mm. And it seems that the only person Ando could trust to carry such a long film is her younger sister Sakura – familiar to many as the main antagonist in Sion Sono’s epic Love Exposure!
Young care worker Sawa Yamagishi (Sakura Ando) helping to look after the terminally ill Shozo Kataoka (Junkichi Orimoto). His daughter Yukiko (Midori Kiuchi) wants to fulfil her father’s last request and asks Sawa to sleep with her father. In this case it is literally just sleep beside him as he misses his mother, which Sawa agrees to but the old man gets frisky.
During the struggle a heater is knocked over a fire starts which sees Sawa sacked by her agency, then lose all her money when she leaves her coat behind on the train. Broke and with nowhere to go, Sawa wanders the streets of Tokyo, helping out elderly men she encounters in return for a place to stay.
And so begins an unusual and, as it transpires, elliptical road trip of sorts for Sawa, taking her from town to town in search of a job and lodgings. As much as this is a journey of discovery for Sawa it is also provides an often trenchant commentary on the changes of Japanese society and the concerns that the people of today have lost their way in the eyes of those who came from the post-war period of hard work which helped rebuild the nation.
This is expressed in an emotional monologue late in the film and a subsequent coda of sorts following on from this gives the film its title. The context of this quote concerns the idea that if one person could move a mountain by 0.5mm then if everybody got together the collective efforts could make for bigger change. Despite having an international reputation for being inherently kind and friendly, Ando seems to be asserting that modern Japan is selfish and stagnant.
Curiously the character of Sawa isn’t presented to us as the solution or even a catalyst for the solution although she plays a part in enriching some of the lives of the people she encounters. Even more curious is the fact that Sawa remains a mystery to us throughout the entire film. Not a thing is revealed about her other than she is a trained carer – her age, marital status, family, birth place, etc. are not once mentioned of if they are, she is coy and vague with her answers.
Appearing like a sullen and brash Mary Poppins, Sawa’s first encounter is with a confused old man Yasuo (Tatsuo Inoue) who wanders into a karaoke club and is about to be ripped off by the clerk. Sawa steps in and pretends to be his partner, knowing the club prefers couples and they share a fun night together. Sawa is rewarded with some money and goes on her way, bumping into a crazed man Shigeru (Toshio Sakata), who she finds shouting at trees and stealing bicycles.
Threatening to call the police Sawa inveigles her way into Shigeru’s home, learning that his family don’t care for him so he is planning to make an investment for his nest egg. Sawa however notices that the deal is a crooked pyramid scheme and seeks to stop Shigeru making a mistake. When they part ways Sawa is rewarded with Shigeru’s prized car and a wad of cash so she hits the road. Her next “case” is aged teacher Yoshimi Makabe (Masahiko Tsugawa) whom she spies in a book shop looking at an erotic photobook which he plans to steal.
Again resorting to threats to expose him as a pervert, Sawa gains a roof over her head at Makabe’s home and a job as carer to his senile wife Shizue (Mitsuko Kusabue), much to the chagrin of current housemaid and carer Hamada (Kazue Tsunogae). This segment takes up almost an hour of the film and features the aforementioned monologue from war veteran Makabe, whose entire persona shifts from the one we assumed about him from the beginning – not that he is completely blameless of course.
The final stop for Sawa comes when she encounters Makoto (Nozomi Tsuchiya), the mute son of the Kataoka family. Makoto is now living with his deadbeat father Takeshi Sasaki (Akira Emoto) in a slum by the docks where he works picking up rubbish. In this instance Makoto is in need of help in a tale with some uncomfortable and surprising twists.
It needs to be said that this film didn’t need to be as long as it is but Ando uses the time with plot related content as opposed to the indulgent longueurs other filmmakers may have resorted to. That is not to say some transitional scenes could do with a trim and the Makabe arc admittedly outstays its welcome by a good twenty minutes or so, excising some of the more surreal moments would be advised, but on the whole the story keeps moving for the duration.
Ando’s trust and faith in younger sister Sakura to bring Sawa alive is justly rewarded with a beguiling and assured performance, suffused with the ambiguity of the character and her motives. Ando minor is not your typical leading lady aesthetically but she is a magnetic actress to watch, capable of reaching deep into the soul and mind of the role at hand with chameleon like possession. This could be the finest hour (or three) for the queen of Japanese indie movies.
There is no argument that 0.5mm won’t be for everyone and even the most dedicated Asianphile might find the run time a bit daunting but if you have the time and patience, there is a sublime and engaging – if rather lengthy – indie gem to be found here.