Changing times and economic malaise slowly encroach upon the lives of an ordinary rural family in Naomi Kawase’s Caméra d’Or winning feature debut, Suzaku (萌の朱雀, Moe no Suzaku). Previously known for her experimental 8mm documentaries, Kawase maintains a trademark naturalism in capturing both the beauty of the natural world and the incidental details of everyday life as the family finds itself at odds with its environment, facing a moment of extreme transience as they recognise the existential threat to their way of life that is caused by, perhaps ironically, a failure of modernity.
The action opens in the early 70s as an ordinary family take breakfast in a remote rural cabin with a picturesque view of a verdant local mountain. Patriarch Kozo (Jun Kunimura) lives with his wife Yasuyo (Yasuyo Kamimura), mother Sachiko (Sachiko Izumi), daughter Michiru (Machiko Ono), and Eisuke (Kotaro Shibata), the son of his estranged sister whose continued absence already seems to hint at cracks in the family unit. Meanwhile, the village has been badly hit by an economic downturn causing many of the younger people to leave and seek their fortunes in the city. Hopes have been pinned on a controversial rail line with Kozo one of its foremost proponents, hoping that with greater infrastructure provision the town will be reinvigorated. Kawase then flashes forward 15 years during which a now grown Eisuke has become the family’s breadwinner with a job at an inn outside of the village while Kozo appears depressed and Yasuyo seems to be suffering from some kind of illness. The long delayed rail project is finally cancelled, much to the consternation of the local community who now seem to have universally come round to the idea. They fear that cut off as they are, the village will dwindle, they will find it harder to find spouses, and their children will have far fewer possibilities.
The smallness of the community is both a strength and a weakness as Kawase plays with the less palatable sides of isolation in the awkward adolescent infatuation of Michiru for her cousin who has been raised more or less as her brother while he appears to have a not altogether maternal appreciation for his aunt who is nearing the end of her tether with stultifying rural life and her husband’s emotional absence, her mysterious illness perhaps a manifestation of her existential unease. She takes a part time job at the inn, moving further away from the family home, out of the village and towards the town while Kozo walks in the other direction, retreating into nature unable to step into the present let alone the future.
Kozo’s camera reels may not contain any great secret but perhaps have their own profound truths, mimicking Kawase’s documentary practice as he captures the smiling faces of local farmers amid the natural greenery. It is precisely this, it’s implied, that he wanted to save, the traditional way of life with its tightly bound communities and local festivals, a life lived in concert with the natural world in all its glorious greenery. He watches the old couple next-door prepare to leave the village because their children have decided to put them in a nursing a home and the sight breaks his heart. He can’t bear to go on living in such a declining world. Pinning all his hopes on modernity he throws himself into the rail project, but in a slightly overworked metaphor the tunnel stops right in the middle. He cannot cross to the other side, and neither can Eisuke, permanently trapped by a painful sense of nostalgia but exiled from his natural habitat.
Eisuke himself is already displaced as a foster child whose mother has abandoned him, apparently in the city but out of contact with her family. Michiru faces a similar dilemma when her mother finally decides it’s time to leave and return to her hometown. Grandma Sachiko sings a folksong sitting on her front porch which quickly gives way to the voices of children echoing those we heard in the opening sequence of 15 years previously in which the local kids played together happily making the most of a warm summer’s day. The family is scattered, divided along its natural fault-lines and trapped between tradition and unrealised modernity with only the melancholy comfort of transience to sustain them.