Naomi Kawase has spent much of her career fending off labels, be it “woman director,” “New Wave young hope” or “maker of autobiographical documentaries” the latter a genre she did much to popularize, starting with her student work in the late 1980s.

In her methods and concerns she resembles other documentarians turned fiction film directors, such as Hirokazu Koreeda and Nobuhiro Suwa, but she has also long gone her own way, quietly, stubbornly and successfully.

In May she reached a new career peak by winning the Cannes Grand Prix for her drama “Mogari no Mori (The Mourning Forest),” beating out a star-studded field that included Wong Kar-wai, Quentin Tarantino, David Fincher and the Coen brothers. Two far more famous fellow Japanese Takeshi Kitano and Hitoshi Matsumoto had garnered far more press attention for their new Cannes-bound films, but Matsumoto’s “Dainipponjin” left the Directors Fortnight section empty-handed, while Kitano’s “Kantoku Banzai!” was rejected for a competition slot.

Mogari no Mori
Director Naomi Kawase
Run Time 97 minutes
Language Japanese
Opens Opens Jun 23, 2007

As reported by some Cannes journos, “Mogari no Mori” may have been a compromise choice that asserted the festival’s dedication to art, not celebrity and commerce (though Cannes thrives on both). As others more controversially claimed, the jury may even have tipped toward Kawase because four of its nine members were women. I don’t really know. What matters is that “Mogari no Mori” is an extraordinary work, fulfilling the promise of “Moe no Suzaku,” a Kawase film that won the Cannes Camera d’Or a prize for first-time feature directors a decade ago.

Both films are set in rural Nara, which has been Kawase’s spiritual home since childhood. Both also deal with the themes of loss, memory and the relationship between humanity and the natural order.

“Mogari no Mori,” however, is more technically accomplished, with rich, vivid high-definition colors and compositions that make Nara’s woods and fields look like visions of eternity. It is also stronger both dramatically and thematically. Kenji Mizoguchi, who blurred the boundary between the living and dead in his masterpiece “Ugetsu,” is one point of comparison, and Abbas Kiarostami, the Iranian master of humanistic less-is-more cinema, is another.

But no one now working in Japan is quite like Kawase, certainly among her pop-culture-fed contemporaries. Instead of borrowing from a sure-thing manga or best seller, she wrote an original script light on dialogue and heavy on visuals that her backers, including French distributor Celluloid Dreams, had to take largely on trust. Also, instead of a bankable star, she cast freelance writer and used bookstore proprietor Shigeki Uda as her lead. A total amateur, he had to play, not a version of himself, but a 70-year-old man in the last stages of senility a challenge for even a veteran actor.

Uda rises to it magnificently, in an egoless performance that is wordlessly eloquent, totally convincing.

He is Shigeki, who lives in the best of possible old folks homes a clean, airy, comfortable place in a beautiful natural setting, run by a youngish woman (Machiko Watanabe) who has a genuine affection for her charges. But he can barely speak one of his few remaining words is the name of his wife Mako, dead now 33 years. Also, there is something clearly bothering him something he can’t express that causes problems for the home’s staff, particular newcomer Machiko (Machiko Ono, who also appeared in “Moe no Suzaku”).

Shigeki is attracted to her, first because her name is only one syllable different from his wife’s, but more importantly because she is a sympathetic soul, who sees not only the disease that has murdered his memory and personality, but the humanity that still lives. Together they romp amid the tea bushes like two children, enjoying each other’s company, beyond the conventional bounds of caregiver and patient.

At the same time, Machiko is dealing with her own loss the recent death of her child and trying to rebuild her life. Her relationship with Shigeki contributes to this process, but he is also a handful, pushing her roughly in a fit of pique and falling out of a tree as she helplessly looks on. Then, one sunny day, she takes him for a drive and everything goes wrong. The car falls into a ditch on a country road and Shigeki wanders off when she goes for help. She manages to catch up with him, but can’t control him as he steals a watermelon from a field, smashes it and gobbles the fruit.

Following his impromptu meal, he strides off into the nearby hills with Machiko close behind. His destination? “Where Mako is,” he says whatever that means.

The film follows the pair into the night and the next day through various crises and coming-togethers, including one memorable scene in which Machiko strips to warm a water-chilled Shigeki with her bare flesh. There is nothing sensual in this act instead it simply, powerfully symbolizes the bond that has grown between the two, while underlining their common humanity.

In filming this story, Kawase rejects both the melodramatics of the usual Alzheimer’s film and the sterile abstractions of the artier minimalists. She uses few cuts and explanations both classic minimalist strategies and she also allows her characters a fuller range of emotions, from rage to tenderness, than the minimalist creed permits.

Does “Mogari no Mori” demand attention and patience? Most certainly. But it sinks in, like a memory that takes on a greater meaning through time. It also defies the trendy tendency to define human worth in terms of beauty, power, possessions and other exteriors, while denying all but the functional meaning to life. Its message: The loving soul endures, even when the mind departs. Skeptics may laugh I’m sure Kawase won’t care.

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