Dir. John Williams, Japan 2001, 104 min.
Although this fully Japanese-financed production looks and feels thoroughly authentic in every respect, it is written, directed and edited by a Cambridge-educated Englishman, John Williams, who has been living in Japan since 1988. For his debut feature Williams adopts the slow, deliberate pace and the subdued, under-dramatised approach typical of his adoptive country's great classics to explore the generation gap separating one of today's confused, unfocused and frustrated city brats from her parents on the one hand, and a survivor of the World War II era on the other. In doing so he reaches a conclusion already encountered in films of this genre, namely that the wider the gap between the generations, the easier it is to bridge between them.
Beautifully shot and lighted, and edited at a pace that would have been considered unacceptable to anyone but Japanese audiences 30 years ago, there is a better than fair chance that this Karlovy Vary world premiere will become a popular festival entry. But it will still have to overcome one serious obstacle before it goes beyond this circuit. Faithful to the tradition he has chosen to follow, Williams reveals just a fraction of the full picture, just like the proverbial tip of the iceberg. In doing so he requires the audience to fill in the blanks, the kind of task that not all spectators are happy to assume.
Naomi, a Nagoya teenager who hates her mother for cheating on her father and rejects any type of adult authority, is dispatched for the summer to her aunt's hotel, during which time the troubles at home should have a chance to subside. Evidently unhappy in the remote mountain resort, where she is expected to help with the household work, she mistreats her retarded cousin and sulks her way through each and every day. To offer her a distraction of sorts, her aunt asks her to look after a distant relative, an old woman living alone outside town. But what seems at first like another annoying and dull waste of time in Naomi's eyes evolves into a strange relationship between the bored pink-haired city girl and the strange old lady.
Sometimes absent and completely lost in her own memories, Mrs Koide can be often clear as a bell and perfectly capable of managing her own affairs. As she keeps coming to visit her, Naomi gradually finds out about the old lady's youthful marriage to a man chosen for her by the family, and about his death three months after their wedding, on the Chinese front. Once a great beauty, she never remarried but, surprisingly enough, as Naomi discovers while prying through the attic, she even played in a film called Among the Fireflies. In the typically restrained attitude of her generation, the old lady may hint about her past but she never elaborates, leaving the past shrouded in a kind of mystery that renders it so much more romantic.
Despite the great difference in age between the two protagonists and the long silences they share during the long hours they are together, there is something they have in common: a basic human quality, unaffected by the fact that one of them is looking back into her past that she would have wished to be different, while the other faces a future which seems uncertain and less than appealing. Once summer comes to a close, the melodramatic rules of the genre are bound to take over - and they do - but even that is done with the minimum of sentimental grandstands.
Working from a pretty familiar premise through the predictable formulas of the coming-of-age rules of the game, Williams' touch becomes evident once the story moves into the countryside. Using the contrast between the claustrophobic city confines and the majestically glorious mountain expanses for the background, the film's main strength ultimately lies in the economy of the quietly moving sequences between the girl and the old woman in Mrs Koide's home. Maho Ukai delivers an utterly convincing Naomi, pouting, often morose, angry, rebellious, cute rather than pretty (to quote the film) yet surprisingly decent underneath her tough demeanour. Veteran Yoshie Minami is even better as the ancient Mrs. Koide, handsome, serene but firm, a figure inspiring both respect and affection, who slips in and out of the present to confront her past but never allows strangers more than the tiniest glimpse into it.
Prod cos: 100 Meter Films
Int'l sales: Orfeo Films International
Prod: Kazuaki Kaneda, Martin BZ Rycroft, John Williams
Screenplay and ed: John Williams
Cinematography: Yoshinobu Hayano
Music: Paul Rowe
Sound: Akihiko Suzuki
Main cast: Maho Ukai, Yoshie Minami, Tsutomu Niwa, Etsuko Kimata, Atsushi Ono, Chie Miyajima, Kyoko Kanemoto, Sadayasu Yamakawa