Tao Nashimoto’s “Ano Sora no Ao (Halcyon Skies),” which premiered at this year’s Yubari International Fantastic Film Festival, is the type of lyrical, personal, naturalistically acted and elliptically narrated Japanese indie film I used to see by the dozen in the 1990s but is now rather rare. One foreign commentator called it the “most normal” film on the Yubari program, but actually the grotesque/bizarre, manga- and anime-influenced genre pic has become the new normal, especially among foreign J-film fans.
I haven’t been totally sorry to see this change: The interminable static shots, meandering, convoluted stories and introverted, monosyllabic characters of that bygone era could be slow death by boredom. At least today’s for-export exploitation product, with its miniskirted, blood-slathered teenage hotties, is trying, however idiotically, to entertain.
Yusuke (Masei Nakayama), a student filmmaker, seems headed in the latter, populist direction at the start of “Halcyon Skies.” He and his classmates at a film school in Niigata Prefecture (similar to the one where Nashimoto currently teaches) are making a no-budget sci-fi movie called “Tetsumajin no Gyakushu” (“Revenge of the Iron Giant”), though their “giant” looks like a welded metal haniwa (ancient terra-cotta clay figure). Then their director suddenly drowns in a nearby river (we are not shown how or why) and the shoot is suspended.
A year later, Yusuke is barely going through the motions at home and school. His father, who polishes spoons all day at a factory in town, tells him to get a real job, while his friends from the aborted film are similarly drifting and depressed. His big sister (Mikie Hara) strenuously and bossily tries to hold the family together, preparing large, elaborate meals and nagging Yusuke to eat — but something, besides his appetite, is missing.
He is, we see in flashbacks, still mourning his mother, one of the many victims of the torrential rains that caused floods and landslides in Niigata and neighboring Fukushima in July 2004.
This may make “Halcyon Days” sound like another indie downer, but Nashimoto, who directed his first film in 1991, makes none of the mistakes of the novice trying to impress with his minimalist attitudes. Instead he thoroughly grounds his film in realities of place, people and memories.
He films the wide blue skies of his native Niigata, as well its more picturesque corners, but doesn’t hide its grittier working-class face. Many of his actors are Niigata natives who bring authenticity to not only accents but also performances, which feel less rehearsed than captured.
Nashimoto is not trying to make another trendy quasi-documentary, however. Instead of a wobbly handheld camera and long, headache-inducing takes, he uses a variety of short cuts and medium-long shots to poetically suggest rather than blatantly state. He also uses repeated visual motifs, such as the enigmatic Iron Giant, to add metaphorical depth and texture that his sometimes cryptic dialog does not supply.
His hero, Yusuke, begins the film as the usual sensitive loner with a limited vocabulary and a paralyzed will. But as played by Nakayama, a liquid-eyed actor with a brief career as a pop idol, the character becomes more tolerable and finally sympathetic as he reveals his troubled past — and his passion for film.
Nashimoto’s main concern, however, is less postadolescent angst than the process of grieving, which can be hidden from outsiders but never completely suppressed. He also shows, with quietly moving beauty, how mourners, even ones wracked with survivor’s guilt, can find a measure of peace, if not — a word I dislike — closure.
At the same time, “Halcyon days” is a cautionary tale for beginning filmmakers, including, no doubt, Nashimoto’s students. A friend of the dead director who arrives from Tokyo to finish “Revenge of the Iron Giant” faces resistance on every front, in ways that will be painfully familiar to anyone who has ever tried to secure an elusive location or cajole a spoiled star.
But like the best teachers everywhere, Nashimoto wants to inspire, not discourage. His final message? When all else fails, kids, go out and make the movie.