“Something new comes along, old things have to go” according to the philosophical boatman at the centre of Joe Odagiri’s They Say Nothing Stays the Same (ある船頭の話, Aru Sendo No Hanashi). A Meiji-set lament for changing times, Odagiri’s first feature following his 2009 mid-length comedy Looking For Cherry Blossoms is a visual tour de force shot by Christopher Doyle with whom he worked on the 2017 Hong Kong film The White Girl whose ethereal images of the majestic Japanese landscape with its misty vistas and rolling river perfectly compliment Odagiri’s poetic contemplation of transience and goodness.
Toichi (Akira Emoto), the boatman, has ferried weary souls across the river for as long as anyone can remember but his days are numbered. Modernity is coming to the village in the very literal form of a bridge currently under construction not far from the crossing point, the workmen’s hammers ringing in Toichi’s ears like a ticking clock reminding him that his era is coming to a close, industrial noise at war with the tranquility of nature. For all that he tries to be philosophical. The bridge will certainly be convenient, as he admits to a man (Takashi Sasano) who needs to transport his cow across the river, the only current solution being to cross where the water’s shallowest and have the cow (and its minder) swim alongside while the man rides the boat. Toichi’s young friend Genzo (Nijiro Murakami) who sells herbal medicines, however, isn’t quite so philosophical. He doesn’t think the bridge is a good thing at all and only half-jokingly suggests blowing it up before it’s finished.
But change comes earlier than expected. Hitting a strange object in the water, Toichi discovers it to be the body of a young girl (Ririka Kawashima) apparently still alive if only just. He takes her in and nurses her back to health, dressing her in a red outfit incongruously in the Chinese style, though she claims to have lost her memory and only later gives her name as “Fu”. Toichi muses on the possibilities, her name perhaps taken from the character for wind which, he points out, is a great motivator for a boatman capable of speeding up the rate of change, but also hears tell of a heinous crime the next village over in which an entire family were brutally murdered with only the daughter apparently spared, feared to have been kidnapped by the killer. Suspecting Fu may be the missing girl, he decides to help her, explaining her presence away in implying she’s a relative from “upriver” he’s been asked to look after for unspecified reasons.
Toichi too claims to be from “upriver” though we never find out where it was he got those clothes from, assuming someone left them on his boat or like the portrait of the Virgin Mary he admires for its beauty and a memory of sorrow in the eyes of the woman who gave it to him as she explained that she would not come this way again, they simply drifted into his life. The poetic import of his existence as a boatman is not lost on him as he crosses the wide river of life and death, haunted by the strange spectre of another young woman who tells him that he’s damned himself with kindness in intervening in matters of fate. The modern world ebbs ever closer, a city doctor dressed in a white suit bringing Western medicine that challenges Genzo’s concoctions while the arrogant engineer and coarse construction workers resentfully climb into Toichi’s boat.
“Bridges aren’t important, I prefer fireflies” Fu affirms, hearing the various ways in which the river is already changing. We find the bridge completed in the depths of winter, Toichi attempting to earn a living with animal pelts but now throroughly out of place in the frozen landscape. Nihei (Masatoshi Nagase), a local, laments the way the bridge seems to have hurried their lives, everyone busily crossing back and forth, the modern world now thoroughly penetrating the village. No longer so young or so kind, Genzo is fully corrupted, dressed in a three-piece suit and cape with a brogues on his feet unsuited to the rocky terrain and now looking down on his old friend who will not be able to cross the bridge into the modern world but will be forever cast away, a boatman to the end never resting too long on the shore.
Yet Toichi maintains his imperfect humanity, admiring Nihei’s father (Haruomi Hosono) as man who truly put others before himself even in death in bequeathing his body to the animals in recompense for the many lives he took as a hunter. Toichi admits that he is not so good, a “selfish nobody” who resents the bridge despite himself but resolves to do better to become a man like Nihei’s father. Odagiri shows us leaves on the water which resemble Toichi’s boat as if to remind us how small he is and how great the river, but leaving us with the knowledge that it and he flows on if in flight, continually displaced by the onrush of an unwelcome modernity with its all of its selfishness and lust for the dubious lure of convenience. Boasting a host of famous faces in tiny roles from an imposing Yu Aoi taking village women to perform in a festival to Masatoshi Nagase in an extended cameo and Harumi Hosono as a beatific corpse, Odagiri’s melancholy tone poem is an elegy for an idealised pre-modern age in which the fireflies still shone on the banks of the river and there was time enough for human goodness.
International trailer (English subtitles)