Film / Reviews

'Kokoro': Belgian director Vanja d'Alcantara offers an insightful interpretation of the Japanese mindset

by Kaori Shoji

Contributing Writer

Alice is a woman who has it all: a beautiful house in a Paris suburb, a loving husband and two teenage children who can be difficult at times but would surely panic if their maman were to suddenly make herself unavailable. Still, Alice (Isabelle Carre) suspects something is missing, and her days are tinged with dark edges of discontent.

Then one day her younger brother, Nathan (Niels Schneider), drops in, takes a look around and tells her she’s “not really alive.” It’s not all bad news though; he mentions finding a place in Japan that brought him peace. Nathan is killed shortly after and a despondent Alice decides to head off to the place he spoke of to find some much-needed closure.

Directed by Belgium’s Vanja d’Alcantara, “Kokoro” offers not only a superb story but an awed and insightful interpretation of the Japanese mindset. Working from the original 2010 novel by Olivier Adam (“Le Coeur Regulier”), d’Alcantara penned the screenplay and traveled with her crew to the Oki Islands off the coast of Shimane Prefecture (though the locale remains unnamed in the story).

Kokoro
Rating
Run Time 95 mins
Language French, English and JAPANESE
Opens NOV. 4

The story is told solely from Alice’s perspective, which is intriguing as she seems to have had no prior interest in Japan or East Asian culture. None of the usual buzzwords — Zen, tea ceremony, martial arts — are a part of the film, which is probably what makes her relationship with Daisuke (Jun Kunimura), an ex-cop who has dedicated himself to preventing suicides, so convincing.

This isn’t a relationship based on cultural exchange; these are two human beings looking for answers in death. The remoteness of Daisuke’s little cabin on the other side of the world, which is itself in a remote part of Japan, is a stand-in for the isolation we feel in grief. But Daisuke’s presence reassures us that even in our grief there’s someone there to listen.

“Kokoro” never feels invasive or exploitative; the story is respectful of Alice’s emotions without trying to specify what she is looking for. This approach is a direct reflection of Daisuke’s personality as well (he’s based on Yukio Shige, a real-life ex-policeman who does suicide prevention work in Fukui Prefecture). Daisuke doesn’t probe or analyze and, in fact, is mostly reticent or even brusque. The language barrier keeps everyone from holding long overly analytical conversations — the common language is English but no one is adept enough to spill out their life stories.

As it is, the dialogue is like poetry — a lovely phrase here, a fleeting and fragile exchange there. Emotions are better conveyed through the astonishing blue of the winter sea and the lush green of the forest that surrounds the cabin. A picture really is worth a thousand words.