Dir: Sabu. Japan. 2002. 87mins.
Even those who have learned to appreciate Japanese director Sabu, his deadpan ironical portrayal of his fellow countrymen and the laconic, elliptical delivery of his films, will find that with The Blessing Bell he has gone to lengths even he has not attempted before. An almost inevitable choice for the Forum sidebar at this year's Berlin (it has presented his earlier efforts and appreciates this type of demanding film language), Sabu's exploration of Japan today is a plotless series of coincidences strung together around one character who might well be the Oriental version of Everyman. Aside from festivals (it also played at Pusan and Tokyo's Filmex last year), The Blessing Bell's most likely audience will be those who are willing to forego story-telling conventions and embrace Sabu's particular brand of surrealism. Tohokushinsha Film Corporation releases the film in Japan in the autumn.
The story starts in a disaffected factory where the recently fired workers speechlessly gaze at what has suddenly become a rusting junkyard. One, Igarashi, walks away - and a real-life fantasy begins. He sits down next to a Yakuza who commits suicide, is arrested as a possible suspect and in jail shares a cell with a man who has killed his wife's lover. Once cleared, Igarashi is released, passes by a house on fire, saves the babies inside, gets a diploma for his bravery and is then run over by a car.
In hospital a dying man asks him to visit his wife; when he finds her she is dead but still holding a winning lottery ticket. Igarashi takes the money, dithers over what to do with it and then has it stolen from him. Then, in the vein of Alice In Wonderland, he falls into a hole in the ground and wakes up the next morning to find he is on a beach, facing the sea. Finally he rushes home, in a speeded up reversal of all the events he has experienced from the start of the film. When he finally opens his mouth to speak and sums up all his experiences of the day, Igarashi wonders whether anyone could possibly believe what has happened to him.
Using his typical tongue-in-cheek minimalist approach, which invites audiences to complement in their minds the on-screen images with sound and music rather than dialogue, Sabu delivers the sort of cinematic essay associated in the West with the likes of Otar Iosseliani.
While the film was referred to in the festival notes at Berlin as a comedy, Sabu's humour is spiked with a dose of melancholy and pathos. If some of his protagonist's accidental meetings have an element of caricature to them, then others are truly inspired and poetic, in particular the death of the old man in hospital (played by the veteran legendary director Suzuki Seijun) and the 'still life' portrait of his dead spouse.
The presence in the main role of Terajima Susumu, an Takeshi Kitano regular, is essential for a character who never speaks: aside from one exception he is passive and only wears one expression on his face. But then, an expression can speak a thousand words.
Prod. co: IMJ Corporation
Jap dist: Tohokushinsha Film Corporation
Int'l sales: Hakuhodo
Prod: Nagamatsuya Taro, Fujisaki Hero, Ogura Satoru, Kubota Osamu
Cinematography: Nakabori Masao
Ed: Ueno Soichi
Prod des: Noguchi Ryuji
Music: Murase Yasuhisa
Sound: Yamagata Hirioshi
Main cast: Terajima Susumu, Nishida Naomi, Itao Itsuji, Suzuki Seijun, Shinohara Ryoko, Masuoka Tooru