Journey of the Tortoise (2016) Review [Camera Japan Festival]

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“With its refreshing cinematography, blended with a thoughtful and effective use of music [the narrative] (…) proves to be a very engaging, funny and downright crazy experience.”

Introduction 

With Journey of the Tortoise Tadashi Nagayama presents his first full-length feature based on his own experience surrounding the disappearance of a turtle he and his brother once had. Their father told them it ran away while he was cleaning the water tank, but Tadashi was dimly aware his father did not tell the truth.

This narrative, inspired by the director’s life, already impressed people at the 2017 Yubari Fantastic Film Festival by winning the Grand Prix. This of course helped the narrative to receive its European premiere at the Dutch Camera Japan Festival and as such a review by psycho-cinematography.

Review

The rebellious Noboru lives alone with his turtle and his father (Tomokoi Kimura). One day, his crazy uncle, Shintaro (Yota Kawase), and his rather strange fiance Naoko (Spica Yufune) enter their life, forcing them to go on a road-trip with their wedding ceremony as their final destination. Unfortunately, this road-trip quickly gets out of hand.

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The narrative concerns the primarily the problematic relation between the rebellious Noboru and his father, which is not able to uphold his authority. In fact, in the narrative space there is no one in Noboru’s family structure, as his mother has died, that can perpetuate the symbolic authority Noboru’s father needs – the failure of the father being linked with the death of the mother. In other words, Noboru’s rebelliousness unmasks his father as a pushover (Narra-note 1). What Noboru needs is not, as he says, another mother, but a father to which he can give the symbolic power to orient his son’s desire –  Noboru’s father lacks desire in fact (Narra-note 2).

tortoise2.jpgIn contrast, the brother of Noboru’s uncle is given more authority by Noboru, but only because it provides a way for Noboru to confront his father with his failings at the level of authority. If he has more authority in the eyes of Noboru, it is because he acts, whereas his father doesn’t. But by following Shintaro’s acts, Noboru can reveal the lack in the father’s function and urge his father to take his role as a father (narra-note 3 [spoiler]).

The cinematography of Journey of a Tortoise is for the most part a standard affair, presenting a balanced mix between moving shots, shots moving in the narrative space as well as following shots, and fixed shots (Cine-note 1). And even though this mix is often more determined by a need for diversity than a philosophy, the choice to frame the more crude ‘actions’ with a shaky camera only serves to empower the atmosphere these actions causes.tortoise3-e1506761410822.jpg Nevertheless, the standard cinematographical mix is spiced up with refreshing camera viewpoints, play with depth of field, the use of fast forward and a sewing together of a wide array of different shots – especially the close-ups are used in an interesting and engaging way, making the cinematography refreshing and more engaging than a bland standard cinematography would.

Besides proving rich and crystal clear sounds, e.g. the sounds of the waves, the licking of the turtle, sound of wine pouring, … etc., some cool country styled tunes enlivens the road-trip at various moments in the narrative. tortoise4.jpgThere is an intelligent applying of music, underlining, as long as they use Naoko’s car, the continuation of craziness of the road-trip and in some cases in a pun-like fashion the failure of Noboru’s father’s authority. These musical intermezzo’s give the narrative a certain chapter-like structure and strengthens the fluidity of the cinematography and the passing of the time, as the road-trip progresses.

With its refreshing cinematography, blended with a thoughtful and effective use of music Journey of the Tortoise proves to be a very engaging, funny and downright crazy experience, with a very powerful and satisfying conclusion. Nevertheless, the road-trip narrative reveals the importance of speech between parent and child, the ways in which fathers may fail to be the father their child wants them to be, and the importance of the act in relation to be given authority.

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Notes:

Cine-note 1: With following shots, we mean those shots where some movement of the characters on screen is followed. In the case of Journey of the Tortoise you have the more subtle following shots as well as less subtle following shots, like following a driving car etc.

Narra-note 1: The very act of Noboru asking his father for a vote to decide to go on the road-trip with his uncle and his fiance reveals the fact that his father cannot uphold any authority.

Narra-note 2: The act of throwing the turtle his father cares for away, can be read as an act that asks his father to become a father on the symbolic plane. What Noboru asks is that his father acts and by his acts reveals his desire.

Narra-note 3: With the father’s utterance “the Typhoon doesn’t matter to me”, Noboru’s father makes the first step to become the father his son needs and in fact, if we consider his behaviour, asks. But what is more important to Noboru, where for him the true failure of his father situates, is the fact his father didn’t act when Noboru’s mother died, or killed in Noboru’s eyes, in a traffic accident.

That the relation between Noboru and his father betters after their talk on the the beach, is because Noboru can finally express his feelings, opening up the space again for Noboru’s father to become a father with authority and opening up the space for the father to act.

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