Reworked from a review first published by UK Anime Network in September 2012.
Saudade is one of those words that’s so unique to a particular language that it’s extremely difficult to translate into another. The recent Portuguese film, Tabu, is almost a literal expression of “saudade” itself but offers this brief explanation of it – a feeling of deep yearning or nostalgia for something that is past and can never be regained. Each of the residents in the small town of Kofu (which is, in many ways, a character itself) are all yearning for something, whether for a new life, opportunity or just a simple return to the promise of one’s youth. As the town’s prospects continue to decline its residents continue to long for something different – some kind of progress to lift them out of the tedious downward spiral in which they feel themselves to be trapped.
Seiji works in construction, employed on short term projects – when there is work going that is, something that’s becoming increasingly scarce. Married to a beautician whom he’s come to dislike due to her social climbing ambitions and desire to start a family, Seiji fantasises about running away with his Thai mistress and starting a new life with her in her home country. He’s joined by a new friend, Hosaka, who, coincidentally, has just returned from a long period of time living abroad in Thailand but seems to have his own problems and perhaps serious reasons for his flight and subsequent return. The newest member of the construction crew is the reluctant Amano, a leader of right leaning hip hop group, who has come to blame Japan’s immigrant population for his own inability to find work and progress in life.
There are also, of course, the non-Japanese populations including the Brazilians who came to Japan on the promise of wages ten times those they could earn in their home country but have found only poverty and discrimination. Many have decided to return home, others contemplate moving on – perhaps to the Philippines in search of a better life for themselves and their families. Some have been in Japan so long that although they are proud of their Brazilian heritage they barely remember their home country and feel they have nowhere to go besides Japan. Desperately trying to walk the line between integration and embracing their own culture, the non-native residents must also devote time to trying to gain acceptance from the local population. That’s not to mention the Thais working as hostesses or dancers or elsewhere in the entertainment industries – accepted but perhaps only in that specific context.
In painting a portrait of his own hometown, director Katsuya Tomita shows a side of Japan that is often absent from Western perceptions – blue collar workers trying to keep pace with the economic downturn while old prejudices rear their ugly heads in defence. The fact that most of the actors are non-professionals and residents of Kofu themselves gives the film a new weight, indeed the two main stars are friends of the director from childhood. Tomita spent a year researching his subject matter and many of these actors are simply repeating their former conversations in a new context for the camera. As the city crumbles and people pull away from each other in their search for something better, the tensions of everyday life grow stronger and threaten to tip over into violent intensity.
The film, however, seeks to remind us that we are all the same. We all have saudades for one thing or another – something we strive to reattain even though we know it’s impossible. The non-native residents yearn for home or for the acceptance they once felt, the Japanese for the prosperous Japan they grew up in and all the possibilities it afforded them in their youth. Seiji must know on one level that his dream of running away to Thailand with his girlfriend is an impossible fantasy, yet he continues to long for it with varying degrees of intensity. Amano’s problems are perhaps more to do with his own circumstances than the political stance he gives them – longing to be ‘someone’, admired, respected and perhaps loved even if the reason for that acclaim is something abhorrent.
At 164 minutes Saudade takes its time and, being an ensemble drama, perhaps lacks enough narrative focus to engage the majority of viewers. However, for those with long attention spans the film excels in character detail and in building a truly authentic atmosphere in the depiction of the decaying Kofu. Not always an easy watch, Saudade is an interesting and unflinching look at an all too often unacknowledged aspect of its home country.
Original trailer (English subtitles)