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Films made by non-Japanese in Japan typically have a “stranger in a strange land” premise (Ridley Scott’s “Black Rain”) or are attempts at an “only in Japan” genre (Sydney Pollack’s “The Yakuza”).

“Kontora,” the second feature by India native and Tokyo resident Anshul Chauhan, would seem to fall in the second category, being a World War II-themed drama, of which many local examples now exist.

But Chauhan, who also wrote the original script, has brought his own vision and sensibility to the story of a rebellious teenage girl who discovers her dead grandfather’s war diary. The result is a film that transcends its Japan-specific subject matter to make more universal statements about the human costs of war.

Kontora
Rating
Run Time 144 mins.
Language Japanese with English subtitles
Opens March 20

“Kontora” avoids the moralizing and sentimentalizing endemic to the war film genre in Japan. Instead, it makes its points more by poetic metaphor, though it is also firmly grounded in the real, including the darker sides of its characters’ psyches. The expressionistic black-and-white cinematography by Max Golomidov enhances both aspects by placing the action in a borderland between disturbed dream and stark waking reality.

At 144 minutes, the film risks overstaying its welcome. After seeing it for the second time, though, I felt drawn deeper into its central question: Why is that homeless man walking backward?

Played with sprightly invention and total commitment by stage actor Hidemasa Mase, he appears early on, nameless, mute and dressed in ragged clothes, taking step after step backward through and around a town in the countryside, despite the stares of the locals.

Meanwhile, on a parallel narrative track, the teenage Sora (Wan Marui) comes home from school to find her beloved grandfather dead, with a box of memorabilia from his wartime military service at his feet. Hearing her irascible carpenter father arrive, she hides the box — and later finds inside it the aforementioned diary, beautifully illustrated with her grandfather’s drawings. Reading it, she sees mention of a “metal arm” buried in the mountains and becomes determined to find it.

Naturally, Sora and the homeless man are destined to meet, at first glancingly and then directly when her father, drunk and distracted following an argument with his arrogant factory owner cousin, hits the man with his minivan. At Sora’s insistence, her father takes him back to the house father and daughter uneasily share.

“Kontora” would be yet another Japanese drama about generational and family turmoil, with familiar scenes of emotional eruptions over ancient grievances and present-day conflicts, if it were not for the diary and the backward-walking man. Their presence adds an element of mystery, a sense of depth and, in the man who keeps moving backward no matter what, even a needed touch of comedy.

Also, as the diary’s secrets are revealed and the man’s true identity becomes apparent, the film becomes a meditation on the never-ending wellsprings and lasting echoes of war that is haunting without being overly obvious. Sora and her father are both decent people, we see, but they also harbor a rage that can suddenly explode. What does that have to do with a long-ago war? Best not to say here, only that answers lie in the unquiet heart of one silent stranger.

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