Not content with being one of the most desirable actors in the Japanese movie industry, Joe Odagiri has made a handsome directorial debut. “They Say Nothing Stays the Same” had its world premiere on the fringes of the Venice International Film Festival earlier this month, and it’s a film that aims straight for the global art-house circuit.

With its languid pace, sumptuous visuals and mournful depiction of a traditional way of life on the verge of extinction, this period drama harks back not just to an earlier Japan, but to an earlier era of Japanese filmmaking.

Odagiri has certainly called in the favors. Cinematographer Christopher Doyle is just one of the big names involved. The estimable character actor Akira Emoto helms a cast including Masatoshi Nagase, Tadanobu Asano and Yu Aoi, plus a rare screen appearance by musician Haruomi Hosono. Celebrated costume designer Emi Wada supplies the outfits, while the lush, faintly eerie score comes courtesy of Armenian jazz pianist Tigran Hamasyan.

They Say Nothing Stays the Same (Aru Sendo no Hanashi)
Run Time 137 mins.
Opens SEPT. 13

Emoto plays Toichi, a stoic boatman who spends his days ferrying people back and forth across a picturesque stretch of river in what appears to be early 20th century Japan. Time passes slowly in this corner of the country, but the forces of change are already looming noisily on the horizon, as the construction of a nearby bridge threatens Toichi with obsolescence.

His daily routine is further disrupted when he discovers a teenage girl (Ririka Kawashima) floating unconscious in the water. Brushing aside rumors suggesting she may be involved in a murder, he takes her in, and they form an unlikely bond. But Toichi is plagued by ominous spirits and visions of impending bloodshed — possibly involving his youthful companion, Genzo (Nijiro Murakami), who may not have been joking when he suggested blowing the bridge up before its completion.

The rural community unsettled by the forces of modernity is a familiar staple in Japanese cinema and literature, though it’s seldom depicted as gorgeously as this. The film ranks alongside Tetsuichiro Tsuta’s “The Tale of Iya” (2013) as one of the most striking renderings of the Japanese landscape in the past decade.

Viewers have ample time to bask in the quality of the evening light, or the morning mist that wreaths the forests. For much of its duration, “They Say Nothing Stays the Same” bobs along at the same unhurried tempo as Toichi’s boat, sticking with him as he heads out on the river, while the particulars of the story gradually accrue through snatches of conversation with passengers.

Emoto’s features are as weathered as the rocks lining the river banks. Though he’s one of Japan’s most ubiquitous actors, it’s been over a decade since he last took a starring role and he doesn’t let the opportunity go to waste.

Odagiri can’t quite reconcile the film’s mood-piece feel with his more dramatic urges, and there are some jarring tonal shifts, exacerbated by heavy-handed visual and sound effects. His screenplay stumbles a few times, and has a tendency to explain more than it needs to, but the story reaches a satisfying conclusion during the bleak midwinter of its final act.

If the film ends up feeling like slightly less than the sum of its parts, that may be because the parts are just too damn attractive. But it’s an accomplished debut all the same.

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