Some films have messages that might as well be emblazoned on their posters — and sometimes are — while others remain something of a puzzle to the end. “The Sower,” the debut feature by painter-turned-filmmaker Yosuke Takeuchi, falls into the latter category. Screened at Nippon Connection, Camera Japan and other festivals here and abroad, it was inspired by Takeuchi’s artistic idol, Vincent Van Gogh, as well as by events in Takeuchi’s own life.

But while watching this gentle-spirited — if disturbing — film, I was reminded of Johnny Appleseed, a semilegendary figure who wandered across early 19th-century America planting apple trees, while dressed in rags and never harming a living being.

The film’s hero, the bushy-bearded, floppy-hatted, nearly mute Mitsuo (Kentaro Kishi), is similarly saintly and eccentric in equal measures. He is also the sower of the title, though his choice of seed is that of the sunflower, famously associated with Van Gogh.

The Sower (Tane o Maku Hito)
Run Time 117 mins.
Opens NOV. 30

Released from a mental hospital in an area devastated by Japan’s triple disaster of March 2011, Mitsuo finds refuge with his brother, Yuta (Tomomitsu Adachi), and Yuta’s family: wife Yoko (Arisa Nakajima), older daughter, Chie (Suzuno Takenaka), and younger daughter, Itsuki, who has Down syndrome.

Though Yuta, Yoko and Chie lavish affection on 3-year-old Itsuki, there is also a tension Takeuchi’s camera deftly conveys more through gestures and glances than words.

The day after his release, Mitsuo takes Chie and Itsuki to the park and, somehow, Itsuki is dropped to the ground and later dies. Questioned by police, Chie blames her uncle and Mitsuo says nothing to contradict her — and, in fact, says nothing at all.

Based on Takeuchi’s original script, the film is not a mystery — a series of quick cuts in the park hints at Mitsuo’s innocence. It is, instead, a drama of individuals who may deceive or condemn others but are all human — that is, fallible and vulnerable, if not always sympathetic.

With nuanced performances from the main cast, the film delicately but firmly reveals the family’s hidden realities, from Yoko’s bitter anger at her husband for what she sees as his callous reaction to Itsuki’s death to Mitsuo’s unspoken pain at being suspected, despised and cast out.

His actions, however, are not always easy to understand, and not just because he never explains or complains. Why is he delighted at finding a small, round stone? Why does he withdraw all his savings and present them to Yuta, who is all-too-predictably enraged? Why does he collect and scatter sunflower seeds? It is possible to read the last act as a cliched symbol of renewal and hope, but what, I wondered, was Mitsuo’s own motive?

More comprehensible is Chie’s older-sibling resentment of Itsuki, who gets the love, especially from their mother, that we can imagine was once lavished on her. There is something in Chie’s hard, steady gaze that chills. Give credit to newcomer Suzuno Takenaka, who deepens and darkens her underwritten role without turning Chie into another child monster. Instead, she leaves us with a mystery more intriguing than the film’s murkier metaphors. If Mitsuo is its misunderstood saint, is Chie its evil-by-nature demon?

My answer is neither yes nor no. As Johnny Appleseed, who was also an itinerant preacher of the Gospel, might have put it, we are all fallen creatures. And some, as “The Sower” shows in one last, haunting image, fall farther than others. But even the fallen can rise.

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.