I was trying to think up a shortlist of female directors from Japan not too long ago and outside of Kinuyo Tanaka, who of course is famous for other things, I could only think of Naomi Kawase. Unfortunately, she got little attention when she won the Grand Prix at Cannes for The Mourning Forest (Mogari no mori) last year. She’s written two novels and directed ten films (her latest is in post-production) but only now, is she getting attention in the west. I’ve felt like I’ve written “only now getting attention in the west” about one hundred times in this blog already. America is just so far behind in Asian cinema. Enough whining, Shara (Sharasojyu) definitely represents the work of a promising talent.
The films opens with a prolonged and rather awkward sequence of Shun and his brother running through alleyways. For better or worse, Kawase’s shakycam tracks the traveling of characters in a way that is as immediately striking as the steadicam tracking shots in Alan Clarke’s films. Shun’s brother disappears and this setups the rest of the film, which takes place seven years after and reflects the family’s inability to move on from their trauma. Shun is now seventeen, exteremly alienated, and falling for Yu. Their respective families have much bottled in leading up to the “Shara festival.”
I always see it as being short-sighted when saying any films is like “so and so but with something else” but this just be an Ozu film with the unfortunately overused shakycam. The first is particularly Ozu-esque, as Kawase simply observes the everyday rituals of the film’s characters. The similarities in living conditions certainly doesn’t hurt this comparison, either. Seeing as how this is a delicate film, it takes place away from the bright lights and modernization of the big city. I’m also reminded of Hou Hsiao-Hsien’s films from the 80s but placing Kawase on the same plateau as my two very favorite directors is a bit premature.
Even though this is a remarkably observant and neutral slice-of-life, the otherwise sparse narrative is plagued by a very silly exposition that ends up taking fifteen minutes of screen time. The film is about Shun, his family, Yu and her step-mom and that’s why the bit about the disappearing brother is unnecessary and frankly, a little silly. It’s bad enough that Shun never really “looks” for his brother but it’s even worse that Kawase felt such an explanation was needed to order to understand the tension of the family. It would be much more interesting, at least to me, had none of that information been given and the audience would be left to study the nuance of the present episodes.
Mrs. Kawase’s aesthetic deserves a word or two, as well. As I said, this is a very low-key drama, the type that I watch at an almost obsessive level. This is one of the first that seems to be keen on using the shakycam handheld look. Certainly the more kinetic approach can strike a chord with me (WKW, Fruit Chan, Cassavetes, and hundreds more) but it tends to be used for much more consequential films. The clash of somber pacing and anti-attention span camera work is very awkward at times, particularly the far too long opening sequence. This leads me to my final very small compliant and that’s that Kawase should have spent a little more time in the editing room. The opening sequence which is basically ten minutes of slow-motion footage of two kids running in a street feels sort of cool at first but goes on for an uncomfortable length of time. The opening festival sequence is a blast in face from the restrained mood the film had built itself upon and yet, the festival sequence ends up feeling even more mundane if only for the fact that it goes on way too long.
Even though I am vocal about my very small problems with the film, it is still pretty much a masterpiece. It’s refreshing to see that not everyone follows the long-held traditions/beliefs about minimalistic films in Asia. This is more akin to the social dramas coming out of South America, the “gluesniffing” genre as I like to call it, but with more focus on characters and their relationships. The people who would like Shara know who they are, and they shouldn’t waste anymore time not seeing it.