When I first saw a trailer for Shunya Ito’s “Hajimari mo Owari mo Nai (No Beginning, No End),” an all-but dialogue-free film starring dancer/actor Min Tanaka, I thought it might be a 95-minute performance piece — and thus better reviewed by a dance critic than by me.

But on watching the entire film, I not only changed my mind, but had a sort of back-to-the-basics reawakening. Ito, a veteran director perhaps best known abroad for his 1970s “Sasori” exploitation films, and Tanaka, a 68-year-old who trained in ballet, modern dance and butoh, have stripped away most of the elements we associate with films of feature length, beginning with the pretense of realism, and plunged headlong into the right-brained world of mysticism, poetry and dream.

There is not much of what is commonly thought of as dance, from Mikhail Baryshnikov to Michael Jackson, in the film. Instead, Tanaka and his fellow performers move in ways agonized and stylized, but somehow familiar, calling up images of everything from crawling lizards and ambulant zombies to performance artists on YouTube and Jesus bearing his cross on the Via Dolorosa.

Hajimari mo Owari mo Nai (No Beginning, No End)
Director Shunya Ito
Run Time 95 minutes
Language Japanese
Opens Opens Dec. 14, 2013

The story, such as it is, is also open to interpretation. At certain moments I saw it as a tortured journey from birth to death and a Dante-esque purgatory, at others the slow evolution of life from amphibious creatures to proto-humans capable of wonder, curiosity and fear. But still other scenes were as easy to parse as the ceremonies of an unknown religion — or the toils of a bizarre nightmare.

The film begins much as life once did, with the mute and nameless hero sitting on the ocean floor, cradling a large ovoid stone. Once ashore he frantically stamps a water puddle in shore rock like a crazed sumo wrestler ritually firming the clay ring. Not long after, he floats down a rushing stream like a barely animate log, as old men cavort catatonically nearby. (These men keep reappearing as a sort of mute Greek chorus to the hero’s journey.)

Such comparisons with the everyday, however, soon become beside the point. The hero is undeniably a human — one usually seen nude or near to it and, for all his wrinkles and spiky gray hair, surprisingly well-muscled. He is also raw consciousness minus memory and personality, as well as a metaphor for the tenacity of life in the most hostile of environments, from a desolate dune to Tokyo traffic.

In contrast to the hero and his elderly fellow travelers, straining against the pull of age, gravity and the Earth itself (in one sequence they sink into the gray mud and murky water of what looks to be a gravel pit), a youngish woman (Shiho Ishihara) suddenly appears as an obscure object of desire, an embodiment of the life force in a flower-print dress. Yet she too partakes of the universal struggle, screaming and writhing in labor on the floor of a ruined building as the old men stare indifferently and slump impotently.

What saves the film from dreariness and tedium is Tanaka, who plays the inchoate hero with a clear vision, expressed by every muscle twitch, and a total commitment, dragging himself near-naked on his hands and knees down a busy, dirty Shinjuku street as passersby stare and point their smartphones. He can also create indelible images with minimal means. In one memorable scene he labors through a wasteland with the aforementioned stone balanced heavily on the back of his neck, looking like a cross between Sisyphus and a grimly determined tortoise.

Ito and veteran cameraman Tatsuo Suzuki support Tanaka’s vision with striking images of their own, such as a circling dance by the woman and the hero, transformed into an eager-eyed boy, around a wooden pillar ablaze in the gloom. The film makes relatively little resort to camera or editing pyrotechnics, though the occasional uses of CGI are skin-crawlingly effective, such as the hero’s plunge into a hellish fiery pit.

What, finally, does it all mean? It probably depends on what you carry in with you. My own takeaway is that this business of birth, life and death is a riddle beautiful and absurd. We can’t escape, even in self-oblivion. We must act, though the purpose is unknown. Or as Samuel Beckett once put it: I can’t go on. I’ll go on.

Fun fact: Min Tanaka began his screen acting career with a performance as a doomed samurai in Yoji Yamada’s 2002 period drama “Tasogare Seibei (The Twilight Samurai),” for which he won a Japan Academy best supporting actor prize.

In line with COVID-19 guidelines, the government is strongly requesting that residents and visitors exercise caution if they choose to visit bars, restaurants, music venues and other public spaces.

In a time of both misinformation and too much information, quality journalism is more crucial than ever.
By subscribing, you can help us get the story right.