Dir/scr: Naomi Kawase. Japan. 2011. 91mins


One of Japanese director Naomi Kawase’s more inscrutable offerings, Hanezu is a mysterious, slow-paced cinematic poem that weaves together many of the director’s favourite themes - the pressure of the past on the present; Japanese myth and legend, especially as it relates to the spirit of a place; man’s connection with nature, and nature’s produce; love’s intimate connection with suffering and loss.

Shot on handheld digital, with a wistfully melancholic string soundtrack, this is one of those films that washes quite pleasantly over one’s head.

But here, although the grace and quietude of Kawase’s  style often charms and seduces, the story seems too slight, especially in dramatic terms, to support the cultural symbolism the director loads it with. In Shara, the effect of a young twin boy’s disappearance on the rest of his family touched deep emotional chords; so too, in The Mourning Forest, did the almost wordless understanding that developed between a young carer and the elderly man in her charge.

The love triangle that forms the basis Hanezu (based on an original story by Masako Bando) on the other hand, is too hastily sketched in, and too obliquely portrayed, for us to feel more than a passing interest in the characters, though Kawase’s delicate mise-en-scene never fails to fascinate.
Micro-budgeted and micro-distributed, Kawase’s films always tend towards the festival and cine-club niche, and Hanezu will be no exception.

Without the emotional heft of The Mourning Forest, and lacking a spectacular set piece like the dance sequence that ends Shara, there is little chance of this latest offering achieving more than the most cursory theatrical distribution. But Kawase has her following - as much abroad as inside Japan - so the film will somehow nuzzle its way towards its faithful micro-audience.

Set in Kawase’s home base of Nara prefecture, whose history and legends inform most of her work, the film begins with images of mud and stones on a conveyor belt. It’s only gradually that we realise that these come from an archaeological dig, and not until the film wraps that an end title informs us that the site in question is Asuka, an imperial capital of Japan in the sixth and seventh centuries, but today a rural backwater.  

A dreamy voiceover recites lines from the ancient Japanese poem that underpins the story - from eighth-century collection the Manyoshu - which tells of the rivalry between Mount Kagu and Mount Miminashi for the love of Mount Unebi (we assume that these three peaks are among those shown shrouded in mist at various points).

Slowly we put a name and a few scraps of story to the three main characters. Long-haired Takumi (Komizu) makes wooden sculptures influenced by Japanese myth and religion. He’s having an affair with Kayoko (Oshima), who lives with Tetsuya (Akikawa). She makes coloured scarves using natural dyes; Tetsuya is a literary editor, but he seems happier tending plants in the garden, and talks of opening a café dedicated to the cuisine of the Nara region - one of several references in the film to locally-sourced, organic food.

Plot points that would be major in most other films are here dealt with so reticently that one could blink and miss them: when Kayoko tells Takumi she’s pregnant, presumably with his child, he mumbles something incoherent and she cycles away on her bike with a cursory “See you!”.

Nature, for Kawase, seems more expressive than people: streams and forests, mountains and the weight and presence of the past (given flesh in the form of the military father who comes back from the dead to visit his son, the chief archaeologist on the Asuka site) infuse and in the end overshadow the three lives shown here. Shot on handheld digital, with a wistfully melancholic string soundtrack, this is one of those films that washes quite pleasantly over one’s head. But in the end, it feels like an in-between project for the prolific Kawase.

Production company: Kumie Inc
International sales: Memento Films International, www.memento-films.com
Producer: Naomi Kawase
Cinematography: Naomi Kawase
Production designer: Kenji Inoue
Editors: Naomi Kawase, Kaneko Yusuke, Tina Baz
Music: Hasiken
Main cast: Tohta Komizu, Hako Oshima, Tetsuya Akikawa