“A story about going through the second window to arrive at that point where one can take responsibility for one’s place in speech and (…) life.”
Taking place on the subtropical island of Amami, the story focuses on the interactions between two teenagers – the confident and more desiring Kyoko (Jun Yoshinaga) and the closemouthed, diffident and troubled but rather indifferent Kaito (Nijiro Murakami) – with each other and with their elders.
The slice of life coming of age narrative starts when Kaito, during the full-moon night of traditional dances, discovers a washed up body of a man covered in tattoos. He runs away, while leaving Kyoko – it seems she didn’t saw the body – surprised behind. The next day she expresses her unhappiness to him for not meeting with her as was planned: Kaito doesn’t answer. Kyoko tries to get closer to Kaito and eventually introduces the desire to have sex with him. Kaito once again remains silent only to offer her some moments later a ride straight home.
Apart from the lack of meaningful interactions with Kaito, Kyoko has another imminent change to give place to in her life. Her mother Isa (Miyuki Matsuda), who’s a delicate and beautiful shaman, is dying. Together with her father (Tetta Sugimoto), the owner of a local bar, they try to make her impending passing as joyful as possible. But Kaito, who lives alone with his hard working, man loving, divorced mother (Makiko Watanabe), while his father (Jun Murakami), a tattooist, lives in Tokyo, has troubles too. Troubles that seem to concentrate around the following albeit unspoken question of what binds a man to a woman. Will Kaito be able to overcome his current inhibited deadlock? Will he become able to give an answer to Kyoko?
In general terms Still the Water tells the story of how two teenagers deal with aspects of loss and how giving place to that loss enables them to grow. But in more specific terms we could say that the narrative concerns itself primarily with the function of speech. Whereas the nature fills the narrative with its impressing sounds e.g. the sea, the wind, … etc., it remains mainly ‘silent’ on the level of speech. This ‘silence of speech’ causes the delineation and underlining of the speech that counts, the speech that has effect, the speech that, because it is uttered, has implications on the subject and his place in the narrative itself.
In other words the essential narrative structure on the level of speech comes to this: Kaito and Kyoko are only able to give a place to their loss by way of those who say something when they utter words, by way of speech that has no other function than to act as coordinates by which they can orient in life. For Kaito the speech of his father as well as the speech of Kyoko’s father are needed to instigate the transgression of his general inhibition. It’s only then he can take up a subjective invested position in relation to his mother and Kyoko and that Kaito, for the first time in the entire narrative, is able to take responsibility for the words he utters. Other people, whose speech is invested by the position they take in their own subjective history, are Kyoko’s mother and Kyoko’s ‘uncle’.
The narrative drives on the fundamental protruding differences between Kyoko and Kaito. The first difference concerns each protagonist relation towards their own speech. While Kyoko is in a way already implicated in her vocalizations, this subjective implication is almost entirely absent in Kaito’s speech – Kaito’s reactions for that matter are mostly reduced to a nodding hum. The first kissing scene and the following scene where Kyoko expresses her love for Kaito are the prime illustration of this difference. In both scenes the viewer feels Kyoko’s desire that comes with the initiative (kissing him and telling him she loves him) she takes towards Kaito and the response she eventually gets from him. This in sharp contrast with Kaito, whose ‘I love you’ – Kyoko forces him to utter it – is not invested by any subjective feeling or desire towards her whatsoever; his ‘I love you’ feels as an empty gesture. Other scenes that highlight this emotional difference are the scene of killing the goat or the third bicycle scene which shows Kaito’s impossibility to answer Kyoko’s emotional needs.
The fundamental difference between them is even sensible in the different quality of their silences. Whereas Kaito’s silence doesn’t seem to communicate anything else than the distance that grounds his character in relation to the others, Kyoko’s silences are more communicative of the fact she’s a being, sustained by emotions and desires; her silences are thus more sensible for the viewer. And as a matter of fact, at the very end, in Kaito’s and Kyoko’s most intimate moment, when they are (finally) having sex, the emotional distance between them persists. Whereas we can feel the importance of the sexual act for Kyoko, the sole thing that’s genuinely sensible concerning Kaito is the emotional distance that underpins his character.
The emotional distance that underpins Kaito makes it very difficult – maybe even impossible – for the viewer to identify himself with him, but it’s important to underline that this difficulty doesn’t stem from a narrative standpoint i.e. the fact he’s taciturn, … etc., alone. There’s also a cinematographical element that problematizes any identification with him too and which concerns the framing/staging of his eyes i.e. the fact that his eyes are mainly orientated away from the screen and are never really focused on. The sole moment where Kawase focuses on Kaito’s eyes is when his mother hugs him. In the end this narratively and cinematographically induced emotional distance silences the emotional effects of Kaito’s formative conclusion (i.e. From the moment he gets mad up until the moment he is hugged by his mother) which thus lacks any sensible emotional reverberations for the viewer.
In Still the Water the viewer is only able to identify with Kyoko, by way of the interactions between her and her dying mother. More specifically it’s the small caressing gesture of the mother, which is undoubtedly the most powerful gesture of the entire narrative, that effectively emotionally implicates the viewer and hauls him in to identify with Kyoko. It’s by that gesture alone that Kyoko’s receive the emotional depth by which we can identify with her.
As mentioned above Still the water goes a long way to ground its protagonists and their story of personal growth in the greater narrative reality of the surrounding rhythm of nature and island life.
The first approach Kawase uses to actualizes this concerns the way the camera is handled, the formal aspects, the style of the shots and scenes. Apart from the simplicity of the cinematography, it becomes quickly apparent that the style that Kawase uses to stage the main characters and persons differs from the style she uses to frame nature. To frame nature, i.e. in this case the sea, the moon …, mainly steady shots are used. One could even say it translates the fact that nature is a colossal eternal force, a force that’s always present at the same place. This formal steadiness then forms a contrast to the less steady documentary-like way of framing the main characters and, to a lesser degree, the islanders, which then underlines the inherent changing nature of the human subject. The lesser steady shots have an implicating effect, they implicate the viewer as well as ground the characters into their surroundings.
The opening scene of Still the water e.g. the full-moon night of traditional dances, for instance has no other reason as to implicate the viewer in the greater narrative reality and the following scene where the townspeople are talking about the discovery of the dead body has, besides implying the viewer too, no other effect than to ground the main characters in this aforementioned reality. It’s immediately clear who the main characters are by how they are introduced cinematographically; the somewhat shaky camera fixates on, follows them alternately, accentuating them from outside the crowd. This way of staging the protagonists i.e. following and accentuating them from a fixed point, is used throughout the entire narrative.
The second way the surrounding rhythm of nature and island life is vividly visualized is by way of the ‘content’ of the shots and the aspects they highlight. Shots are quite often used to highlight daily proceedings (e.g. the school and class scene, the cooking scenes, …), cultural uses (e.g. the dance, the songs at the dying scenes, …) and integrate the story of Kyoko and Kaito into a larger reality. The larger reality is also made sensible by way of filling shots and scenes, in correspondence with the documentary-like shooting, with the natural sounds of the surroundings.
To conclude Kawase, instead of relying on speech, primarily utilizes the narrative quality of the shots itself to tell her story. In framing ‘the human world’ Kawase uses longer shots, exploring the scene itself by way of inherent camera movement or by following one of the main protagonist while they move through the narrative background. She keeps halt at daily routines and cultural uses – this is brought to a zenith in the beautiful and emotional dying scene of Kyoko’s mother, enabling the viewer to extract a sense of rhythm, and raises the interplay between nature and subject e.g. the underwater swimming scenes, the scenes where Kaito rides his bike, while Kyoko stand behind on the spokes,… etc. , to their inherent poetic quality. This human narrative is then framed against the backdrop of the beautiful staged rhythm of the ever present nature. But even though all above mentioned techniques are used with masterly precision and thoughtfulness, the narrative lacks a more general emotional feeling, the major exception being Kyoko and her relations to others. As a matter of fact it even seems that the framing of the narrative implicates the viewer, only to reveal this viewer as, for the most part, nothing more than an outsider.
Still the Water is a documentary-like slice of life narrative of two teenagers, set against the backdrop of the rhythm of nature and the daily life of the islanders. A story that’s ultimately all about going through a second window to arrive at a point where one can take responsibility for one’s place in speech and thus life.
The narrative boasts a peculiar way of bringing speech into existence; it’s not that Still the Water features a lack of speech. But it features, for the most part, speech without any effect, ultimately giving prominence to the speech that does reverberates subjectively.
Given the masterly precision and thoughtfulness that went into framing each shot and into framing the formative story of Kaito and Kyoko, it’s all the more sad to see the narrative lack any real emotional repercussions for the viewer, what concerns Kaito’s side of the story. Emotionality for the viewer is only found at Kyoko’s side and in the way she has to deal with the imminent death of her mother.
But don’t let this lack in emotionality withhold you from watching this movie; Still the Water remains by way of its narrative purpose and the way the narrative is grounded in the rhythm of the nature and island life, a movie worth watching.