Naomi Kawase is the most lyrical of Japanese directors now working. As both a documentarian and a feature filmmaker, she discovers in the common materials of everyday existence — sun, wind, water, trees, insects, people — a beauty and transcendence that is always present, seldom noticed. Set mostly in her native Nara Prefecture, her films evince a quietly deep and intimate relationship with her physical, human and mythopoetic environment, while studiously ignoring the pachinko-parlor-in-the-rice-paddy side of Japanese rural life.
These qualities are present in her new romantic drama, “Hanezu no Tsuki (Hanezu),” which screened in competition at this year’s Cannes Film Festival. Shot by Kawase herself in and around Asuka, a village near Nara that was an ancient capital and cradle of Japanese civilization, the film is set in the borderland between unsullied nature and flawed humanity, the tragic past and the protagonists’ messy present.
Story-wise, “Hanezu” resembles Kawase’s 2001 film, “Hotaru (Firefly), a drama about the turbulent relationship between a sensitive, hunky potter and a troubled exotic dancer; but where the earlier film was volcanic, with sex and rage flowing in equal proportions, the new one feels as cryptic and under-motivated as a dream.
Meanwhile, the omnipresent imagery of nature, from jewel-like beads of dew to trees swaying rhythmically in the wind, and a sonorously narrated legend of two local mountains contending for the affections of a third illustrate the central story, but only flickeringly illuminate it.
Kawase’s heroine is Kayoko (Hako Oshima), a woman living a seemingly idyllic existence with her devoted long-time lover, Tetsuya (Tetsuya Akikawa). She dyes scarves her beloved crimson (hanezu is an old word for this color, found in the ancient Man’yoshu poetry collection), but seemingly more as an avocation than a full-time job. He works as an editor, but prefers pottering in the garden and eating healthy locavore meals with Kayoko.
The serpent in this paradise is Kayoko’s lover, Takumi (Tohta Komizu), an earthy, long-haired woodcarver who lives in an old farmhouse so close to nature that birds nest in the ceiling. He chats about local legends and history with an elderly archaeologist (Akaji Maro), but exists apart from the ordinary run of humanity. With this sexy force of nature, the quiet, introverted Kayoko reveals a passionate side absent in her old-shoe relationship with Tetsuya.
When she abruptly announces her pregnancy to Takumi, it’s logical to assume the baby is his rather than Tetsuya’s — and that the two lovers will finally be united. But Takumi’s grandfather (Taiga Komizu) and Kayoko’s grandmother (Oshima in a double role) had had similar feelings for each other, until circumstances separated them. Will their descendants share their fate?
The answer, implied in everything from the mythicized mountains to the ancestral ghosts, doesn’t quite convince. Exchanges meant to be weighted with significance, human and allegorical, are underdeveloped and underacted.
The problem is not fundamentally with Kawase’s vision and naturalistic, improvisatory methods — which she used to such powerful effect in her 2007 Cannes Grand Jury Prize winner “Mogari no Mori (The Mourning Forest)” — but rather the thinness of the love-triangle story, which she shoots gorgeously but tells rather sketchily. The tsuki (moon) of the Japanese title may be evocatively hanezu instead of mundanely akai (red), but its drama is behind the clouds.