“I can reach the mainland by rowing boat, but why won’t my feelings reach you?” a plaintive song asks in Nao Kubota’s melancholy tale of perpetual longing and continual loss, Thousand and One Nights (千夜、一夜, Senya, Ichiya). A lingering ghost story, Kubota’s contemplative mood piece sees two women, one old and one young, take different paths in the wake of their abandonment but perhaps finding themselves no less unhappy when left with the unanswered questions of a sudden absence.
On the island of Sado, fishwife Tomiko (Yuko Tanaka) has been waiting for her fisherman husband Satoshi to return home ever since he said he was “just going out for a bit” thirty years previously. Many in the community view her with a mixture of pity of revulsion, seeing her as close to madness in her refusal to accept that her husband will never come back to her. Meanwhile, the former mayor Taisuke now retired to take care of his bedridden wife, puts another young woman, Nami (Machiko Ono), whose husband Yoji (Masanobu Ando) similarly just went out for a bit two years ago and never came back, in touch with Tomiko hoping she can help her investigate what might have happened and if Yoji may be among the small number of presumed abductees taken from the island by the North Koreans.
Sado does seem to have a large numbers of “missing” people, which in itself is not such an unusual phenomenon given how easy it can be in Japan to simply “evaporate” and start again somewhere else. The island was also the site of a handful of confirmed abductions by North Korea in the late 1970s, dangling another unanswered question in front of the women wondering if their husbands might have been spirited away and prevented from contacting them no matter how much they may have wanted to. Nami is herself third generation Zainichi Korean and wonders if that might have had something to do with Yoji’s disappearance, though in contrast to Tomiko her goal is less reunion than a simple desire to know why. She wants to give herself permission to move on, having drifted into a relationship with a besotted colleague (Takashi Yamanaka) she may not actually quite love but offers her a quiet and conventional life of security she’ll never now know with Yoji.
Nami does, however, feel a degree of shame in her desire to put the past behind her as if she were betraying a romantic ideal in being unable or unwilling to give up her life in waiting as Tomiko has done. She fears Tomiko may resent her, but she doesn’t, not really only acknowledging that she’s made a different choice. Like Tomiko, Nami is left with unanswerable questions, wondering if Yoji simply walked out on her because he grew tired of the inevitability of their life together, if he was bored, or lonely or depressed. Perhaps he met someone else, had an accident and lost his memory, fell off a cliff or was killed in some other way and someone covered it up. Perhaps he’s dead, perhaps he’s in North Korea. Perhaps it’s all the same.
While the community pities Tomiko in her martyrdom, they attempt to pressure her to move on by agreeing to marry local fisherman Haruo (Dankan) who has long carried a torch for her even since they were children. Yet in the irrationality of romantic longing, Haruo cannot understand why Tomiko will not give up on Satoshi even as he is unable to give up on her despite her frequent and unambiguous rejections of his overtures. There is a particularly unpleasant quality to his obsessive ardour as his mother (Kayoko Shiraishi) comes round to plead with Tomiko to marry her son and his work colleagues organise a kind of intervention asking her to give in because he’s going out of his mind. He runs her down, says she’s “withering away” and only he can save her while worryingly possessive and controlling even threatening suicide and later going missing at sea just to make her feel guilty and worry about him.
Even Tomiko’s mother is suffering the pain of lost love, hugging her late husband’s prosthetic leg as she sleeps while excusing the drunken violence that Tomiko says left her with a lasting fear of men by explaining that the war changed him. Tomiko complains that no one ever tells her anything important and that they always leave, but equally refuses to reveal very much important to anyone else keeping her feelings largely to herself remaining something of an enigma, uncertain if her constant waiting is more habit than devotion. In all these tales of frustrated longing from Taisuke and his ailing wife to Satoshi’s parents who rarely talked of their son only for the father to tell the mother on her deathbed that he was still out playing, there is an inescapable loneliness in the essential inability of conveying one’s true feelings that leads some to simply make their exit without saying a word.
Thousand and One Nights screens at New York’s IFC Center on Feb. 12 & 15 as part of ACA Cinema Project’s New Films From Japan.
Original trailer (no subtitles)