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“There was nothing — it was empty,” says one of the characters in “Haruhara-san’s Recorder” after watching a piece of minimalist performance art. “A fresh experience,” her companion concurs.

The same could be said of this spare, subtly resonant drama by Kyoshi Sugita. The director’s third feature drew strong reviews on the festival circuit last year, though it’s a film so delicate that I’m reluctant to burden it with too much praise, for fear its fragile beauty might collapse.

Very little happens, in a dramatic sense, and what does is painted in the lightest of brushstrokes.

Haruhara-san’s Recorder (Haruhara-san no Uta)
Rating
Run Time 120 mins.
Language Japanese
Opens Now showing

The protagonist, Sachi (Chika Araki), is a sad-eyed young woman, seen at work in a riverside cafe or lounging around in her apartment. Her life has the air of something hurriedly conceived: She’s clearly new to her job, and has inherited her home from an acquaintance — complete with the furniture and, it seems, many of his belongings.

It takes a while for it to become clear that Sachi is in mourning, and that the other woman who occasionally appears in the room with her, silent and watchful like a cat, is the spirit of someone who’s passed on (whether she’s a friend, sister or lover isn’t entirely clear).

Like Sugita’s earlier “Listen to Light” (2017), the film was based on tanka, a form of 31-syllable lyric poetry that’s been around for over a millennium. The verse in question, by Naoko Higashi, also supplies the movie’s title; when it appears during the end credits, it’s like seeing the underlying sketch for a finished painting.

“There’s just no space in the lines of a tanka for whys and whats and hows,” said another famous modern practitioner, Machi Tawara, in a 2006 interview with The Japan Times. “That’s the beauty of it: no explanations, apologies, recriminations.”

Sugita aims for a similar effect in his filmmaking, preferring to suggest rather than tell, letting viewers draw meaning from a lingering shot, or a lull in a conversation. Most of the scenes are quotidian, even trivial, but over the space of two hours they gradually reveal something deeper.

A brief synopsis in the film’s press materials offers more details about Sachi’s life than anything in the dialogue, but the way she interacts with the other characters feels natural, rather than deliberately obscure.

“Haruhara-san’s Recorder” elegantly captures the ways in which people tiptoe around grief. Sachi’s uncle keeps turning up unannounced and taking her on motorcycle trips, trying to be supportive even though it’s clear he isn’t sure how. Nobody mentions the name of the person whose absence they so strongly feel.

Yukiko Iioka’s cinematography is equally restrained, favoring medium and long shots, with minimal cuts and a near total absence of close-ups.

Mourning isn’t an inherently cinematic process, and Sugita doesn’t force the issue with big emotional outpourings or epiphanies, though Sachi does slowly move forward as the film progresses. She changes her hair, tells her uncle he doesn’t need to keep calling, and allows herself a moment of unguarded emotion in the presence of a stranger.

By the end of the film, she may not have found closure, but she seems to be in a better place. Viewers with the patience for Sugita’s understated cinema may find his film has a similar effect on them.

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