“Suenaga shows an amazing aptitude to blend genres and to stage his humanistic vision in a surprising and unconventional way.”
While Keishi Suenaga’s work is mainly focused on crafting short narratives, like Tadareru/Becomes Sore (2014), Sorede Sekai wa sukuwarenakutemo (2016), and Cold Feet (2018), he did craft his first full length feature in 2015. Just by looking at what Suenaga did to realize this narrative, e.g. writing the script, producing the movie, directing it, editing, acting in it, and so on, it becomes evident that Suenaga was passionate about bringing this project to the silver screen. Furthermore, by making movies he himself wants to see, he also aims to break the current uninteresting equilibrium of Japanese cinema (Mini-int-1). So let us take a closer look at Keishi Suenaga’s first full length feature.
In the past, there were people – many among them of Ainu descent – that had a psychokinetic firing ability. Alas, around the middle of the 20th century, at the time the American army started searching for these so called ‘Witches’, the tribe with this capability seemed to be extinct.
One day, Eiji Onodera (Keishi Suenaga), an ex-soldier of the Russian army, receives a new mission from Vadim Dakidov (Gohnosuke Tokuda), a captain and former colleague, despite his retirement. While Onodera is unwilling to comply, he is left no other choice than to accept this mission of guarding, monitoring and finally securing Toshio Honda (Taiyo Sawa), a former ranger of the Japanese defense forces who fled with Risa (Riho Yoshioka), the sole survivor of Honda’s killing 27 of his comrades in the middle of a joint operation with the US.
Inherit the stars is not an easy narrative to categorize as it provides a remarkable blend of action, drama, subtle romance and science fiction. Nevertheless, as is evident from the narrative’s structure, this genre-mix aims to evoke something about humanity itself. Rather than solely depicting action, staging romantic moments or developing sci-fi elements, the narrative focuses on exploring the relationships between various characters, most notably between Onadera and his colleague Zina (Satoko Enmei) and between Risa and Honda. In other words, even though the narrative may start like a normal action-narrative – the two first scenes establishing the simple narrative set-up and infusing the narrative space with some tension – the main narrative development or exploration has to situated in those periods between the various actioscenes.
In these ‘rest’ periods, the narrative explores the characters, mainly Onodera, and the relationships between them in a rather surprising fashion. In a way, Suenaga shows the main characters in a state of lacking something that could be designated as love. This logically gives the characters a more relatable position and brings forth their humanity beyond the role of soldier. In this way, the narrative shows the fundamental difference between the aspect of human emotion in contrast with one’s duty as soldier within a game between higher forces (Narra-note 1). What further humanizes – albeit in a rather Japanese manner – Suenaga’s characters is how they already seem to have accepted their fate. Besides giving the depicted action a paradoxical status, this acceptance turns Inherit The Stars, despite the military setting, into a drama of humanity.
Even though the extra-ordinary status of Risa is never in doubt, the narrative is still able to hook the spectator’s attention through the mystery surrounding Honda’s killing spree, its connection with the nature of his relationship with Risa, and the appearance of a mysterious man at Honda’s cottage. And while Inherit the Stars is not an action-narrative in its purest sense, there is still an anticipation of confrontation that is continually evoked. Sadly, the narrative is not able to capitalize on the anticipation it creates, as the depicted action doesn’t fully satisfy the anticipation.
In the ‘rest’ moments of the narrative, the cinematography of Inherit the Stars provides a blend of fixed shots and subtle moving shots (Cine-note 1). While most of the cinematographical movement ‘explores’ the narrative space, following shots are subtly used as well (cine-note 2). These latter kind of shots mainly follow Risa and thus subtly put the focus on her the central presence of the narrative. What is slightly unfortunate about the horizontal moving shots is that they sometimes lack fluidity – sometimes these shots show a minor faltering before initiating movement and/or visibly show changes in the ‘trajectory’ of movement. While these ‘problems’ are only minor, they have the potential to disturb the spectator’s immersion.
While one can’t expect any long-winded action scenes, the cinematography does shift when the ‘equilibrium’ of the ‘rest’ moments is disturbed by sudden bursts of close-quarter action. These cinematographical shifts are characterized, quite predictably, by a faster concatenation of shots, snappier camera movement – underlining the movement of the action as such, and a more shaky framing (Cine-note 3). And while the action itself is not entirely up to par with the cinematography and the dramatic musical score, these shifts nevertheless elevate the excitement in a pleasant way.
Much of the drama, emotion and tension that Inherit the Stars is able to evoke, can be attributed by the often dramatic musical score (sound-note 1). While this music can often be a little bit too dramatic, the music, in harmony with the cinematography, is nevertheless instrumental in keeping the spectator interested throughout the narrative. The dramatic nature of the narrative is further empowered by Gohnosuke Tokuda, who portrays Dakidov, and to a lesser degree, the mysterious man played by Kurui Takasi. Tokuda’s acting gives his character a slightly over-the-top dramatic authority, draping each signifier he utters with a sense of importance (Acting-Note 1). Luckily, the main characters are portrayed with more nuance, enabling Suenaga to touch upon the fundamental dimension of humanity he wants to express.
While Inherit the Stars may be too dramatic for some, it is nevertheless a really enjoyable narrative, that, despite its appearances as an action movie, successfully touches upon a fundamental dimension of humanity: love. Unfortunately, the narrative does lack some power as the war and impending storm is never visualized – and this may very well be due to budgetary reasons – in the way it should have been. Nevertheless, with this narrative Suenaga shows an amazing aptitude to blend genres and to stage his humanistic vision in a surprising and unconventional way. In other words, Inherit The Stars underlines that true creativity in Japanese cinema has to be found in the indie-scene and that we haven’t seen the best of Suenaga.
Mini-int 1: 私たちはSuenagaさんに質問二つを聞きました。
- 「Inherit The Stars」の目的は何ですか？この映画には僕の母方の祖父（Father of Mother）の実話（True Story）が入っている。この映画の様な、戦争（World War 2）と戦後の冷戦時代（After the War to Cold War Era）を舞台にしたSci-Fi Film を日本は全然、作らない。この戦争（World War 2）と戦後の冷戦時代（After the War to Cold War Era）は、アメリカ・ソヴィエト・日本、どの国も、色んな意味で秘密（Secret）が多い時代。だから「こんな事を秘密でやっていた」と勝手な想像のフィクションを書いても「もしかしたら、本当にそんな事をやっていたかもしれない」と思ってもらえるんじゃないか、と思った。その中で、自分の家族が体験した「戦争と戦後（War and After War）」を映画にしたかった。この映画のシューティングがスタートしたのは2013年。母親が死んだのが2003年だったので、このタイミングしかない、思った。
Cine-note 1: The memories, flashbacks, Onodera has about him and Hagi, an important woman in his life, are framed with trembling shot movement and painted in more subdued colours.
Other flashbacks are present as well, like for example to explain how Risa and Honda met each other. Note that this flashbacks is devoid of shaky framing.
Cine-Note 2: Horizontal movement often ‘reveals’ the furthest speech-partner of a given conversation.
Cine-Note 3: Shaky framing is also used to communicate the tension certain characters feels or, near the end of the narrative, the tension of the situation as such. In the final of the narrative, slow-motion is also added to the more snappier framing of the action.
Acting-note 1: While some might sense some over-acting in his performance, his presence in the narrative space nevertheless gives the narrative set-up the sensible importance the narrative needs.
Sound-note 1: While the sound-design is great overall, there is nevertheless one instance where the sound is too crystal-clear for the narrative space the sound is happening in. In this way, it is clear that the sound has been added in the editing process.
Narra-note 1: Ultimately the narrative aims to communicate the fact that people or not symbolically death after dying.