Still The Water (Futatsume no mado)
Japan (2014) Dir. Naomi Kawase
This elegiac meditation on life, death and relationships through the eyes of two teens from a different background was a big hit at Cannes for Japanese auteur Naomi Kawase, while the director herself believes this is her masterpiece.
The setting is the subtropical Amami Island in Southern Japan where simple esoteric traditions passed down over many generations and spiritual beliefs are long held by the islanders. One night former Tokyo-ite Kaito (Nijiro Murakami) who lives on the island with his mother Misaki (Makiko Watanabe) while his father Atsushi (Jun Murakami) is back in Tokyo, finds a dead body floating in the sea. As this is his first brush with death, Kaito starts to worry about human mortality.
Meanwhile Kaito’s girlfriend native islander Kyoko (Jun Yoshinaga) has her own confrontation with death as her mother Isa (Miyuki Matsuda) is dying, although Kyoko refuses to believe in death since Isa is a shaman, which the islanders believe is akin to being a god. Isa’s relaxed attitude towards passing on and he theory about a mother’s life being intertwined with her child sparks an interest in Kyoko about the cycle of life.
It all sounds very highbrow and intellectually probing which Kawase offsets with the beautiful photography of the lush island location, offering a calming visual respite from the sparse and occasionally ponderous existential musings. For a film with such deep ideas to explore the dialogue is rather minimal although ripe with a hefty opinion on the subject on hand.
Kawase seems to be to juxtaposing two differing schools of thought and beliefs – Kaito’s “city” mindset and Kyoko’s more spiritually influenced ideals – then attempting to bring them together with mixed results as neither can understand the other. This is reflected in their personalities and relationships with their families. Kaito is quiet and reserved while his mother is out every night with a different man; Kyoko is a free spirit who likes to swim in the sea fully clothed and enjoys a happy and open rapport with her parents.
Isa’s impending death is a catalyst for the two teens to try to understand death, their upbringings and backgrounds proffering clashing opinions. As if to illustrate this, on Isa’s deathbed her family and friends sing traditional songs and dance to make Isa happy while Kaito looks on utterly perplexed. This may also have the same effect on viewers whose patience for droning traditional Japanese folk songs accompanied by a single samisen, especially when the group threaten to sing a six-verse song!
Apparently this film came about after Kawase discovered she had ancestors who lived on Amami Island, and with the subject matter of family traditions we can assume this is something of a love letter to the island and a tribute to her heritage. It also acts as a travelogue of sorts through the aforementioned stunning photography which shows off the bucolic charm of the greenery and the shimmering wonder of the crystal blue waters.
The sea is showed off in the most gorgeous fashion during the two underwater swimming scenes in the film. The photography is luminescent as the blues of the water create an ethereal yet serene setting for the youngsters to escape into. Swimming is in fact a metaphoric theme of the plot, with Kyoko’s father Tetsu (Tetta Sugimoto) suggesting that as a “city boy”, Kaito’s fear of the sea is linked to his apparent lack of adventure and spirit.
Such myopic views can be seen as either quaint or arrogant but are indicative of the effect the surroundings has on a person, as much as it does their spiritual beliefs. It doesn’t appear that Kawase is advocating either view as right or wrong but merely putting forward the two ideas while weaving coming-of-age tale for the young couple caught in the middle of this tenet conflict.
It’s a hard film to gauge a personal feeling on, not so much the subject matter which is fascinating but the presentation – Kawase’s marriage of visual wonder and spiritual discussion isn’t quite as a successful as it could have been, the result being an rather uneven narrative. The bursts of drama are infrequent, an afterthought even, for what should be driving the story forward, but when they come they are unsubtle and feel shoehorned into what is otherwise a laconically paced film.
This makes it a little difficult to get a true reading on the two leads since it is their understanding, or lack thereof, which is the central conceit of this film but their attitudes and behaviour sometimes change with the wind with no real rhyme or reason. That said the two actors are very good in their roles – newcomer Nijiro Murakami relays the confusion and pain of Kaito with a brooding teen impetuousness, while Jun Yoshinaga’s essaying of Kyoko is as a free spirit with a fragile heart.
While the youngsters have great chemistry together, the most credible bond is that of Kyoko’s family, looking like a natural family unit. Special mention must go to Miyuki Matsuda as Isa, whose final moments are heart-achingly touching and profoundly dignified thanks to Matsuda’s delicate performance.
This is my first experience of a Kawase film and with only the Cannes recommendation and the wildly mixed reviews I really didn’t know what to expect. As is often the case I find myself in the middle – I can see how some may find this dreary and indulgent with just a sliver of a story to justify the events on screen, yet there is a poignant and interesting topic of discussion behind what is a tangible teen romance, presented in the most gorgeous manner.
Still The Water has plenty of rewards depending on one’s mileage for a tepid pace and arcane storytelling. One can’t fault the effort made by all involved in this film but it isn’t infectious for all viewers, so file this under caveat emptor if you prefer more sizzle with your steak.