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Reflections on the dark side of a tropical island

by Mark Schilling

Special To The Japan Times

Naomi Kawase was once Japan’s best-known female director abroad; now she is one of its most internationally prominent directors, regardless of gender.

This change is largely due to her long association with the Cannes film festival, where her first fiction feature, “Moe no Suzaku (Suzaku),” won the Camera d’Or award in 1997. A decade later “Mogari no Mori (The Mourning Forest),” a drama about life and death in the forests of her home prefecture, Nara, was awarded the Grand Prix. And in 2013 she also became the first Japanese director to serve on the Cannes competition jury — an indication of her rise to the ranks of the international film-world elite.

So expectations were understandably high for “Futatsume no Mado (Still the Water),” Kawase’s first Cannes competition entry since “The Mourning Forest,” and a film that she publicly declared to be her “masterpiece.” This may have jinxed “Still the Water,” since it left Cannes without a prize, despite generally positive (if not rave) reviews, as well as a standing ovation at one screening, which one Japanese reporter clocked at 10 minutes — a report that ought to be taken with a grain of salt.

Set on Amami Oshima, a subtropical island between Kyushu and Okinawa (and Kawase’s ancestral home, which she only became aware of several years ago), the film is another of her meditations on the evanescence of life, the bond between people and the land, and the power of nature, to which all mortals must sooner or later submit. Kawase and cinematographer Yutaka Yamazaki create opening shots of waves whipped up by a typhoon, revealing nature at its most awe-inspiringly ferocious.

These themes have long been found in not only in Kawase’s work, but also many other Japanese films, though her take is more personal and committed than most. They have also long found favor abroad — fueling Western fascinations with various forms of Eastern spirituality. But underlying the mysticism is a more mundane type of self-absorption.

The focus of the story is on two adolescents — the moody, closemouthed Kaito (Nijiro Murakami) and the bronzed nature-girl Kyoko (Jun Yoshinaga), who both face the sort of turning points common in seishun eiga (youth films). Kyoko’s mother, Isa (Miyuki Matsuda), is an island yuta (shaman) married to the easy-going proprietor of a local bar/restaurant (Tetta Sugimoto), but she’s dying of an unnamed terminal illness. Meanwhile, Kaito is making shocking discoveries that upset his already fragile mental equilibrium, beginning with a tattooed man floating dead in the sea and continuing with the lovers of his divorced mom (Makiko Watanabe).

As signaled from the many shots of Kaito and Kyoko tooling about the more scenic parts of the island on Kaito’s bicycle, with Kyoko standing dashingly in the rear, this turmoil brings the pair together in the usual ways of hatsukoi (first love) films. First, though, they have to absorb various life lessons, including those delivered by a shuffling white-bearded sage (Fujio Tokita),who graphically slaughters two goats as object lessons for his animistic death-sustains-life world view.

Kawase, who preferred poetically showing rather than didactically telling in her early autobiographical documentaries, overdoes this sort of thing. The pearls of mystical wisdom begin to cloy, as do the repeated shots of sunlight filtering through the huge banyan tree in front of Isa’s open-to-the-elements house. We get it, we get it and we get it.

At the same time, there is a lived authenticity informing even the over-ripe scenes. Documentarian-like, Kawase has diligently studied the island’s culture and beliefs, and shares the islanders’ celebratory, close-to-nature outlook on life and death. But her local sources of inspiration play only bit roles.

She also has an appealing lead in Yoshinaga, whose sharp-eyed boldness and sweet sensitivity as Kyoko reminded me of a heroine from a Hayao Miyazaki animation, if one with a sensuality very unlike Miyazaki.

Murakami, a newcomer, is blankly sullen as the troubled Kaito, though he does lighten up in his scenes with Jun Murakami, his real-life father, who plays Kaito’s tattooist father in Tokyo.

I’m sure Kawase was sincere in describing “Still the Water” as a “turning point,” but, stripped of its overblown thematic ambitions, its story is thin and generic. Even so, the film is a loving, beautifully-photographed celebration of Amami Oshima, from its unruly nature to its infectious folk music. Perhaps the “turn” Kawase ought to a consider is a travelogue.

Fun fact: “Still the Water” was filmed primarily on Amami Oshima’s northernmost tip, not far from where Naomi Kawase first went in search of her own ancestors in 2008, as well as the location of the island’s airport.