Japan’s ageing population continues to provoke shifts in the social fabric, not least in small rural towns where the elderly now dominate and have been largely left to fend for themselves as if time had simply left them behind. Following his previous documentary Oyster Factory, documentarian Kazuhiro Soda returns to small town coastal Japan with Inland Sea (港町, Minatomachi). Focussing on the village of Ushimado, he observes those still clinging on to an archaic way of life despite advanced age and increasing hardship.
The first of Soda’s primary subjects, Waichiro, is now 86 years old and hard of hearing yet he still takes his boat out every day to fish in the hope of returning home with a prime catch. His living is, as he explains, precarious given that his equipment is now expensive while the price of fish has severely declined. A later meeting with fishmonger Koso makes plain that not every catch is equal – live(ly) fish fetch the most money, while dead ones bring in in only half and like everything else the price of fish is also dependent on demand.
Koso refuses to tell us her “real” age outside of amusingly describing herself as a “late stage elderly” which sounds like something she probably read on a well meaning but somewhat patronising government leaflet. In any case, she is a sprightly, energetic woman who seems far younger than her years and is something of a neighbourhood hub as she makes her rounds delivering fresh seafood to the mostly elderly residents who eagerly await the next tasty catch.
Most of the other residents are, however, more like Waichiro in advanced old age and mostly left to their own devices now that their children have left for the cities never to return. Kumiko, an 84-year-old widow who still works by the waterside preparing fish is just one such woman with a heartbreaking post-war story she later relates in a typically matter of fact fashion. Becoming a kind of guide for Soda and his producer as they explore the small village, Kumiko often attempts to steal the spotlight – bad mouthing her neighbours live on camera while they stand right behind her as in the case of her apparent bestie whom, she insensitively tells us, has “no friends” and a poor relationship with her family despite having eight children which most of the other lonely older people might consider as something of a luxury.
Relating her sad life story in which she laments a feeling of disconnection from the place in which she lives owing to having lost her family in the war and been adopted at age four by a fisherman and his wife who denied her an education (as was the thinking in those days), Kumiko lays bare a melancholy underside of the post-war boom which seems to have left towns like these (the ones that survived at all) almost untouched as if frozen in time. The world has pulled away, leaving Ushimado behind like a rock pool filled with water long after the tide has gone out.
Soda’s decision to regrade the film in black and white after shooting in colour adds a poignant touch to his casting of Ushimado as a place somewhat out of time. Wandering around, Kumiko begins to point out empty houses, mostly belonging to the recently deceased, which make up the bulk of the town and it’s true that the vast majority of the people we meet are older save perhaps for a younger woman helping at a cafe and a middle-aged one who takes care to feed the many stray cats who are the area’s other main residents with leftover fish offal. There is, however, perhaps fresh hope for towns like Ushimado as evidenced by the mild surprise expressed in discovering the range of dishes on offer at the local coffee shop seeing as technological advances and better transport links may help to draw some of those who left for the city back to the country even if not to fishing. At the very last, colour returns to the screen reminding us that there is life in this place still and that its stillness should not be mistaken for transience.
Streaming almost globally via Mubi until 1st April 2019.
Original trailer (English subtitles)