They Say Nothing Stays the Same (ある船頭の話, Joe Odagiri, 2019)

“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. 


They Say Nothing Stays the Same streamed as part of this year’s New York Asian Film Festival.

International trailer (English subtitles)

Flowers (フラワーズ, Norihiro Koizumi, 2010)

flowersThe rate of social change in the second half of the twentieth century was extreme throughout much of the world, but given that Japan had only emerged from centuries of isolation a hundred years before it’s almost as if they were riding their own bullet train into the future. Norihiro Koizumi’s Flowers (フラワーズ) attempts to chart these momentous times through examining the lives of three generations of women, from 1936 to 2009, or through Showa to Heisei, as the choices and responsibilities open to each of them grow and change with new freedoms offered in the post-war world. Or, at least, up to a point.

In 1936, oldest sister Rin (Yu Aoi) is to be married off against her will to a man picked by her father and whom she has never actually met. Bold and wilful, Rin finds herself more than usually torn between her intense resentment at being forced into a one time only life changing event simply on her father’s say so, and the guilt of rejecting centuries of tradition in rejecting her father’s authority. Minutes before the ceremony Rin makes a break for it fully done up in her wedding dress and makeup.

Flashing forward to her funeral in 2009, we learn that Rin did marry (someone, at least) and had three daughters. It’s her granddaughters we’re interested in now – happy mother Kei (Ryoko Hirosue), cheerful even at a wake, and the depressed Kanna (Kyoka Suzuki) – an unmarried former concert pianist who’s recently discovered she’s pregnant and is unsure what to do. In order to understand them we have to flashback a little again – to 1969, 1964, and 1977 to find out what happened to Rin’s three daughters – Kaoru (Yuko Takeuchi), Midori (Rena Tanaka), and Sato (Yukie Nakama).

Koizumi makes the most of his shifts in time periods to experiment with technical effects recreating the look of classic films of the era. Hence, 1936 is a desaturated monotone filled with classic silent movie compositions, seemingly owing a large debt to Ozu, Shimizu, and Mizoguchi. The difference between 1964 and 1969 might be thought slight but partly down to the different genre elements in the two vignettes, the contrast is marked with 1964 taking on the classic romantic melodramas of the period, and 1969 embracing bright and colourful salaryman comedy – only this time it’s a salary woman embarking on the era of having it all (though perhaps, tragically, ten too years to early to make the most of it). 1977 brings us back down with bump of realism as Sato lives an ordinary suburban life as a housewife and mother. Imbuing each of his eras with the warmth of nostalgia backed up with rich period detail, Koizumi has indeed framed his passage of womanhood narrative with an impressive degree of grounding.

This has been a period of intense social change, entirely for the better even if there is still a long way to go. Though marriages of 1936 were referred to as semi-arranged, families could and did place intense pressure on their children to consent or refuse to accept their refusal to do so (perhaps as true for sons as daughters, though sons were unlikely to find themselves in such a difficult position when things went wrong). Thus the course of Rin’s life is decided by her rigid, austere father leaving her with no possibility of choice in a world entirely controlled by men. Her daughters have more freedom and opportunities, marrying for love and choosing careers and/or motherhood as they see fit.

Midori, the most headstrong of the three sisters takes a job at a publishing house where she is the only female employee. Receiving a marriage proposal leads her to question her choices once again, wondering if accepting means jumping off the career ladder altogether. Wanting to get ahead, Midori has been behaving like her male colleagues – dressing in less feminine clothes and in subdued colours, heading off the inevitable sexist comments with aggression and violence but, eventually emboldened, she she finds herself blossoming when embracing her femininity within the workplace.

The world has moved on – women cannot be pushed in the same way Rin was pushed even if social mores can still be used to cajole them into conformity. The one big recent social change is in Kanna’s decision to proceed as a single mother. Though the question is still raised, there is broad approval for the idea which is met with no obvious stigma and only love and support from her immediate family. However, some things apparently don’t change as even if not all roads lead to marriage they all point towards motherhood which is still presented as the only marker of success as a woman. In this respect the closing montage accompanied by the odd choice of Olivia Newton John’s Have You Even Felt Mellow feels ill judged as the sister who’s experienced the ultimate heartbreak bounces around recreating the opening of Georgy Girl (only more successfully) with a new haircut and indulging in an ice-cream as a sort of antidote to eternal widowhood.

Nevertheless, Flowers does present a warm and broadly inspirational ode to the healing power of family and unbreakable female resilience even in the midst of such extreme social change. Painted with a keen eye for period detail and a deeply nostalgic longing for comforts long since passed, Koizumi’s exploration of womanhood through the ages is quick to acknowledge the pain and sacrifice experienced by women of all generations but is, in the end, too ready to accept it.


Original trailer (no subtitles)