The Narrating Camera as Ethnographer

Tim Iles, Department of Pacific and Asian Studies, University of Victoria [About | Email]

Volume 7, Issue 1 (Film review 1 in 2007). First published in ejcjs on 31 January 2007.

Sharasojyu (2003) [USA: Shara]
Dir: Kawase Naomi
Cast: Fukunaga Kyōhei, Hyōdo, Yuka, Kawase Naomi, Namase Katsuhisa, Higuchi Kanako.
Colour, 100 minutes.

Very few of Japan's many film directors are women—this unfortunate fact is not too surprising, given the historical realities of gender issues in East Asia, but it does make the handful of women film makers there that much more important for the alternative visions their work can provide. A good case in point comes from Kawase Naomi who, over the past fourteen years, has made eight films, all infused with a lyricism that is as beautiful as it is entrancing. This lyricism comes not only from the stories which her films tell, but they way in which her camera tells them.

Sharasojyu is one such film that utilises a handheld camera throughout to tell its story of a family overcoming the mysterious disappearance of one of their sons as a child. This disappearance occurs at the beginning of the film: as Shun (Fukunaga Kyōhei) and his brother, Kei (Yamamoto Masashi), wash off the ink that has stained them at a printing shop, Kei runs off through the streets of their residential neighbourhood in Nara. Shun follows, but rounding a corner, loses sight of Kei, who disappears, never to return. Years later, Shun's mother, Reiko (Kawase Naomi) is pregnant and very close to term; Shun's father, Taku (Namase Katsuhisa) is busy preparing for the local basara matsuri; and Shun is in love with Yu (Hyōdo Yuka).

This is a very simple film that derives its momentum neither from its plot—which after all is quite slight—nor, even, from studying its characters' psychology—for the film remains resolutely external to the characters' inner selves. Instead, the momentum comes from the fascinating camera work which brings the viewer into intimate contact with the daily lives of this close-knit family, and which roots the characters firmly, safely, and confidently in the welcoming space of their Nara neighbourhood. This camera moves with great ease around, after, and between the characters in sequences of very long takes. The opening eight minutes, for example, are composed of only three different shots. This movement constitutes the camera very much as a living presence. Aided by natural lighting, a soundtrack drawn from the ambient sounds of everyday life, and performances that are superb in their naturalness, the film is able to situate the viewer directly into its flow. This situation gives to the feeling of knowing the characters to great depth, but one that is never obtrusive. While we never have an inner monologue to allow us access to or to pry into a character's private thoughts, we still come to understand the great love this family shares for each other, and the sorrow they each harbour over the loss of Kei. The camera, moving among the characters, captures them as they interact with the people around them, observing them with tremendous respect. The camera, for example, never presents the characters head-on, but always from an angle, from the side, from behind. Focusing on the small details of this family's lives—their garden, their faces at prayer with their neighbours, their hands clasped as Reiko gives birth at home, surrounded by husband, son, neighbours, and midwives—the film creates a sympathetic intimacy that leaves us at its close feeling as if we've come to understand much about the process of community in Japan, its method of keeping its traditions alive, and its strength in preserving quiet hope across many years.

And indeed this film does highlight Japan throughout, from the opening sequence dominated by the droning clang of a Buddhist priest striking his prayer anvil, to the shots of Shun and Kei running through the streets of their neighbourhood, touching, as they go, the buildings, houses, and fences they pass, to the shots of the family's home, its sliding, wooden door, steep, wooden stairs, and tatami-matted, narrow rooms. The place of these characters and their relationship to it becomes something of a side-story, and as the film locates, roots, the characters in their neighbourhood, so too it locates and roots itself as part of that world. I have rarely felt, watching a film, so much sense of presence: I could feel the wooden door slide open before the camera, smell the tomatoes growing in the humidity of early summer, and smell the incense burning as Reiko and her neighbours pray together, turning between them a long string of large rosary beads. This sense of presence captures the lived reality of an average, suburban Japanese family with the best precision of a sensitive ethnographer; not to problematise or explain away the family's lives with anthropological theory but to preserve a record of the simplicity with which they create powerful, enduring bonds between themselves.

That these bonds are completely independent of the characters' gender becomes one very important aspect of this film. The camera has the remarkable ability to make gender vanish as a determinant of the social roles of its characters. Mother and father both react with restrained concern when the police arrive to ask the father to identify a body believed to be Kei's; they both hold Shun as his grief overpowers him. The camera never favours either men or women in its presentation, never highlights or diminishes, and the story itself devotes equal time to both male and female characters. The extreme visuality of this film presents, without ideology or ulterior motive, the simple surface of natural life, but behind that surface exists a depth of tradition that is inclusive, supportive, and vital. Regardless of the ideology that does exist under that surface, Sharasojyu presents a view of contemporary suburban Japan that does not seek to demarcate propriety for its characters, but rather creates for them a nurturing space in which, as individuals and members of a community, they are able to thrive. This is the 'alternative vision' so necessary in contemporary social discourse, and so masterfully though simply presented here, in a work of great beauty, passion, and power.

About the Author

Tim Iles is Assistant Professor of Japanese Studies at the University of Victoria, British Columbia, Canada, where he teaches Japanese culture, cinema, and language. He has an MA from the University of British Columbia in Modern Japanese Literature, and a PhD from the University of Toronto, also in Modern Japanese Literature. He has taught courses on Japanese literature, theatre, culture, and cinema in Canada and the United States, and has published articles on those subjects. He is also author of Abe Kobo: an Exploration of his Prose, Drama, and Theatre (Fuccecio: European Press Academic Publishers, 2000).

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