Film / Reviews

‘Mori, the Artist’s Habitat’: A delightful dip into a creator’s world

by Mark Schilling

Contributing Writer

Fact-checking biopics is an easy game for critics to play since nearly all films about real people fudge facts or even outright lie to tell a story. I’ve played the game myself, but in the case of Shuichi Okita’s delightful “Mori, the Artist’s Habitat,” it’s almost beside the point.

Celebrated in Japan for his late-career paintings of flowers, insects and other natural phenomena in a childlike style, Morikazu Kumagai (1880-1977) isn’t well-known abroad. So Okita’s film, which is based on his own script, is a welcome introduction, though it focuses on only one day in the then-94-year-old artist’s life and never shows him actually painting.

The story is as simple-seeming as one of Kumagai’s cat paintings but goes beyond the surface of his obsessions and quirks, the best known being his reclusion, to pointed, affectionate dissection of his character and world.

Mori, the Artist's Habitat (Mori no Iru Basho)
Rating
Run Time 99 mins.
Language JAPANESE

In the last decades of his life (the film says 30 years, Wikipedia 20) the painter never left the confines of his house and jungle-like garden, all 60 square meters of it. This looks to be a classic case of agoraphobia, and when Kumagai (Tsutomu Yamazaki) ventures tremulously outside the gates of his house in the film he is soon chased back again by the frown of a neighborhood girl.

The wonders he finds in his garden, however, from ants to goldfish, keep him endlessly occupied. A slow-witted photographer’s assistant (Kaito Yoshimura) tells his excitable boss (Ryo Kase) that the sight of Kumagai intently fondling a small stone reminds him of a Chinese sage. “He hates that,” the photographer snaps. And in Yamazaki’s wry, minimalist performance, Kumagai is less the sage than the eternal small boy, if one who clumps around his paradise on two canes.

Also, far from being a recluse, Kumagai is close to his protective, endlessly patient wife, Hideko (Kirin Kiki), while stoically enduring a daily flock of visitors, from an obsequious innkeeper (Ken Mitsuishi) who wants the master to brush a sign for his business to a thuggish developer (Mitsuru Fukikoshi) whose new multistory apartment building will block most of the sunlight to the garden.

This project has angered Kumagai’s fans, who have posted anti-developer signs on his garden wall, but is little more than just another incident in this all-but-plotless film.

Okita, who also directed the similarly true life-based “The Chef of South Polar” (2009), has seeded his script with understated gags that Yamazaki and Kirin — both masters of comedy — bring off flawlessly. But he risks losing his audience — at least ones who aren’t Nature Channel fans — with shot after shot of the garden’s flora and fauna.

Instead of nodding off, however, I found myself both laughing at Kumagai, who in close-ups looks like a gray-bearded Gulliver as he inspects his garden’s tiny wildlife, and sharing his fascination and joy. When Hideko says she wouldn’t want to relive her life (it would, she explains, be “too tiring”), I also understood Kumagai’s response: “I’d do it again, I like my life.”

Not that, like Kumagai, I’ve spent years observing the micro as though it were macro, but “Mori” makes his world look both inviting and infinite. Why, I thought, would anyone want to leave it, even when a mysterious visitor offers Kumagai something far bigger and, who knows, better? Heaven can wait.