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)

Real (リアル 完全なる首長竜の日, Kiyoshi Kurosawa, 2013)

real posterKiyoshi Kurosawa has taken a turn for the romantic in his later career. Both 2013’s Real (リアル 完全なる首長竜の日, Real: Kanzen Naru Kubinagaryu no Hi) and Journey to the Shore follow an Orpheus into the underworld searching for a lost love stolen by death, but where Journey to the Shore is a tale of letting go, Real is very much the opposite (or so it would seem). Taking on much more of a science-fiction bent than Kurosawa’s previous work, Real adapts the Rokuro Inui novel A Perfect Day for a Pleisiosaur in which the boyfriend of a woman in a coma journeys into her subconscious through a process known as “sensing” in order to help her face up to whatever it is that’s keeping her asleep and lead her back towards the living world (or so we think). Strange and surreal, Real is a meditation on love, trauma, and the nature of consciousness in which “reality” itself is constantly in shift.

Koichi (Takeru Satoh) and Atsumi (Haruka Ayase) are childhood friends now living together as a couple. Despite their apparent happiness, one year after we see them enjoying a cheerful breakfast Atsumi is in a coma following a suicide attempt and Koichi is about to undergo an experimental procedure known as “sensing” to try and venture inside her consciousness to find out why she did it and possibly help her wake up.

Koichi makes contact and finds Atsumi living more or less as she had before, inhabiting their shared apartment and hard at work on a manga series, Roomi, which is now on hiatus following her indisposition. Roomi, like much of Atsumi’s work, is dark and macabre – the story of a serial killer who murders people in increasingly violent and disturbing ways. The brief flashes of bloody victims Koichi begins to notice in his peripheral vision soon give way to “philosophical zombies” or the NPCs of of the subconscious which take the form of badly animated third parties peopling Atsumi’s mind. What Atsumi wants from Koichi is to find a drawing of a Pleisiosaur she drew for him when they were children, because it was “perfect” and will help restore her faith in herself as an artist.

The Pleisiosaur turns out to be a little more significant than it first seems, taking Koichi and Atsumi back to the remote island where they first met. Almost like Stalker’s “The Zone” the island is a place of ruined dreams and frustrated inertia where some kind of accident related to the construction of a resort Koichi’s father was involved in building has permanently destroyed any idea of progress. This frozen, rubble strewn landscape perfectly reflects the lost world of the trapped dreamers as they battle the ghost of a shared yet half forgotten childhood trauma.

Though less obviously disturbing than some of Kurosawa’s previous forays into eerie psychological horror, Real has its share of typically J-horror tropes including a dripping wet ghost albeit this time one of a little boy popping up in unexpected places. Kurosawa opts for a hyperreal aesthetic, filming with harsh digital cameras which make little concession to the obviously cinematic, adding to the appropriately lifeless atmosphere of Koichi’s “real” world life and the surreal dreamworld of Atsumi. Koichi’s oddly pyjama-like clothing adds to the ongoing uncertainty as the two worlds blur into each other, becoming indistinct as the screen texture suddenly changes or the camera rolls to an unusual angle.

Shifting from Tarkovsky’s landscapes of desolation to Antonioni’s fog filled confusion, Kurosawa peels back the layers of repressed trauma to finally get to the core of what’s trapping the protagonist’s psyche within its frozen state. Childhood friends as they are, Koichi and Atsumi are trapped by a sense of guilt for something that they were both witness to all those years ago and so to overcome it, they will need to face it together. This time Orpheus descends but refuses to leave alone, battling literal dinosaurs from the distant past which must be placated with tokens of affection and, finally, heartfelt apologies. The “real” remains obscure, but Kurosawa does, at least, demonstrate his faith in love as salvation in a climax that echoes A Matter of Life and Death even if in a surreal and not altogether successful way.


International trailer (English subtitles)