The various awards (e.g. the Best Asian Future Film Award and the Spirit of Asia Award) that Passage of life (2017), Akio Fujimoto’s debut cinematographical narrative, earned, could spell a great future for this young director. That is, if he is able to be as passionate about his future projects as he was about Passage of Life. Personally driven by a touching true story he happened to hear while mingling with the Burmese community in Takadanobaba, he set out to frame their story for Japan in particular and the world in general.
After fleeing the country after the 8888 uprising in Myanmar, a Burmese family has settled down in Japan – without a visa. As expected, life is far from ideal. The mother Khin (Khin Myat Thu) struggles with a sleeping problem and, if the father is absent, Htet (Htet Myat Naing), the youngest son, becomes aggressive towards his mother and the older brother Kuang (Kaung Myat Thu) – making daily life even harder than it already is.
The father, Issace (Issace) is as a matter of fact trying to apply for refugee status at the Tokyo immigration center. But, contrary to his friends, the family of four receives a rejection. Issace sees no other option than to reapply, much against the opinion of his wife.
One quickly realizes that Akio Fujimoto’s central narrative purpose is to frame a family as such. Instead of using a dramatical narrative structure that puts the (politicized) drama on the foreground, Fujimoto favours painting a naturalistic impression of how a certain Burmese family gives form to their family-life on Japanese soil. This impressionistic framing is nevertheless situated on an insisting ‘backdrop’ of insecurity, an insecurity related to the problem of the acknowledgment of their refugee status. It is this very problem that makes its presence felt by ‘structuring’, as an intrusion and destabilizing force, the life of Khin, Issace and their children.
Speaking of the narrative’s structure, it is in this divide – the family-life and the insecurity due to the dehumanized procedures of applying for refugee status and the disruptive and often ‘inhumane’ consequences of the application of the law concerning visas – that the mainspring of sympathy for this family is to be found and the subtle demand for more humanity is to be situated. Furthermore, the spectator’s sympathy – and this is central to the narrative – is revealed as impotent, as the Burmese family’s situation depends on the letter of the law.
Even though the Burmese family’s interactions as such form the main focus of the narrative, the narrative can still be divided in different focus points. Initially the narrative underlines the mother’s position, revealing her as struggling with the non-position she has in Japanese society, a position that strains her relation with her husband and puts the future of her family into question – the latter insistently bothering her as it is the source of her sleeping problems which, as a result, strains her relationship.
A second focus point – the least important overall – concerns the father and his efforts to secure a future of his family in Japan. Fujimoto is able to subtle reveal that Issace, in order to ‘comfort’ his wife – which is impossible, he hides his own insecurity. A third and final focus point – the most important one – are of course the children as such – Kaung in particular. In this framing, it is revealed that, behind the children’s happiness, the insecurity that subjectively marks the parents mark the children as well. In this respect, Kaung has the most complex existence – even though he is Burmese, he is marked – just as his younger brother – by a non-belonging, as they do not share the Burmese language spoken in their home-country. It is this complexity – ever touching, but often painful at the same time – that is misunderstood and left largely unacknowledged by the mother (and the father).
The cinematography of Passage of Life is characterized by a documentary-styled shakiness. While this shakiness aims to give the fictional narrative a sense of realism, it might be better to say that this shakiness aims to evokes, as the narrative is based on a true story, the realism of the situation as such. Another notable aspect of the cinematography – and not unrelated to the dimension of realism – is Fujimoto’s preference of using long(er) temporal shots (Cine-note 1). These long(er)-temporal shots – be it semi-fixed or following shots – most often act like focusing shots, highlighting the expressions and comportment of a certain character – most notably Khin and Issace – in the narrative space. When these long(er)-temperal shots are mixed with shorter shots, it is not so much one character, but the interaction between various characters that is focused on (Narra-note 1).
That the narrative is able to be moving is largly due to the naturalness by which the non-professional cast performs. Fujimoto succeeded in guiding his cast in such way that the realism the cinematography seeks after is complemented by interactions that feel genuine and natural. The touching nature of the narrative is furthermore enhanced by minimalistic guitar music by Wasei Sato. While these musical pieces are often not more than a short string of notes, they do not fail to underline (the sadness of) the family’s impossible position as they struggle with their life in Japanese society
Passage Of Life is a narrative that thrives on the human depiction of a refugee family trying the secure a future, while subtly problematizing the inhumanity and the inadequacy of the letter of the Japanese immigration policies. It is in this divide – humanity versus inhumanity – that the narrative, supported by some very natural performances, is able to be so moving and touching. Maybe Japan can find their Brothers Dardenne in Akio Fujimoto.
Narra-note 1: Furthermore, at one time, one particular signifier, by way of insisting through the composition, sows the various shots together into one scene. This signifier is none other than “Daddy” and, by association, his failure to be present. This is something that insists throughout the.narrative.
Cine-Note 1: For the rest, the cinematography of Passage of Life presents a mix of semi-fixed shots, following shots, and lingering moving shots, which change point of focus in conversations.