For our first festival review of the year, we focus on Natsuka Kusano’s second feature film Domains. As her previous narrative Antonym (2014) was able earn her the best director award and the Skip City Award at 2014 edition of the Skip City International D-Cinema Festival, it should not come as a surprise that her movie was selected in this year’s Bright Future section of the International Film Festival Rotterdam.
When Aki Takemoto (Asami Shibuya), who is charged with the murder of the three year old daughter of her long-time friend Nodoka Kakiuchi (Tomo Kasajima), is asked to confirm her confession, she has only one question for the the police officer (Ryu Kenta) in charge: the purpose of this procedure. The police officer points out that confirming her confession is necessary to be able to bring her to justice. Takemoto adds rather coolly that she has already been brought to justice. When the confused officer asks her to explain what she means, Takemoto adds mysteriously that what she means is similar to time.
Domains is an experimental narrative that investigates the spatial and temporal dimensions of relationships. By taking Aki’s subjective position and her confession as the narrative’s starting point, Kusano has no other aim than to explore how relational and psychological space functions. In this experimental exploration, Kusano reveals how certain spaces, as supported by subjects, are able to have negative subjective implications, how a subject can be an intrusion to a certain other space, and how a physical space acts as a support of a psychological space between two subjects. But he is also able to evoke, by the narrative’s experimental structure, that the spatiality is, first and foremost, function of the signifier.
The function of the signifier is highlighted by the cinematographical narrative’s emphasis on the spoken word and by the unconventional way the narrative develops (Structure-note 1, Structure-note 2). The former is evident in the narrative’s use of rehearsals to frame the narrative. As these rehearsals are devoid of visual context, we, as spectator, are forced to focus on the uttered signifier. The latter is evident in the cyclic-reversed-chronology by which the greater part of the narrative unfolds (Narra-note 1, Structure-note 3). Domains is, in fact, a narrative full of inner cyclic movements. Rehearsals or part of these rehearsals are repeated as the narrative unfolds itself. What is important to note is that these repetitions introduce differences in scene-set-up, narrative focus-point, expressed emotion, and, last but not least, differences at the level of uttered speech – the signifier. Most scenes become, by their very repetition, more and more something we can call the ‘true framing of the narrative’ (Structure-note 4). Besides repeating individual scenes or part of those scenes, the narrative also repeats entire parts of the reverse-chronological narration. While all this cyclicity can be disorienting at first, the repetitions, together with the more chronological narration in the later part of the narrative, enable the spectator to grasp the purpose of the narrative.
As Domains favours the signifier, it should not come as a surprise that the narrative shows that meaning – retroactively as well as anticipatory – is especially generated by signifiers – be it repeating or new ones – unfolding in the metonymic dimension. While this dimension functions irrespective of the cyclic unfolding of the narrative, the experimental play with the signifier created by the field of tension between fundamental metonymy and the narrative’s cyclicity, allows Domains to evoke subjectivity in various but equally sensible ways (Psycho-note 1). First of all, due to the myriad of repetitions, the nodal point – the defining moment – of Aki’s subjectivity is able to rise up from among the sea of imaginary speech-exchanges (Structure-note 4). Secondly, the repetitions subtly turn Aki’s facial expressions into a compass for reading those signifiers evoking the truth – Nodoka’s truth – of her relationship with her husband Naota (Tomo Kasajima). And thirdly, by its cyclicity, the narrative also subtly emphasizes the very thing that escapes meaning, that which speaks without being said: subjectivity. In light of evoking subjectivity as that what escapes, Domains should be understood as framing Aki’s search for her own subjective truth, a search for an answer to the riddle the murder evoked for her, as such. Aki is thus as much a riddle for herself, as she is one for the spectator.
The cinematography of Domains is composed with a mix of subtle moving shots and temporally long fixed shots. Besides underlining the uttering of the signifier as such, this cinematographical mix also underlines the movement in the frame as such. As the visual context is reduced to a minimum, this movement ever concerns facial expressions – most notably those of Aki. The repetitions of the narrative, by introducing a minor evolution at the level of Aki’s emotion and her interactions as such, further emphasize Aki’s subtle emotionality (Cine-note 2).
It is only through the cinematographical focus on Aki and her facial expressions that the narrative is eventually able to touch upon the unsaid and the half-said, both evoking in their own way the very riddle subjectivity is. The more we watch and re-watch moments of the narrative, the more we feel that things are either unsaid or are only half-said and the more we feel the tension between the spoken and the subjectivity that hides behind signifiers (Cine-note 3). As the cyclicity of the narrative puts so much emphasis on the spoken signifier and the subtle differences in facial expressions, movements, and intonation, the performances are of fundamental importance. While each actor/actress shows their aptitude to perform in a subtle and rather minimalistic way, it is Asami Shibuya’s subtle but strong performance that pulls the spectator into the mystery Aki as such poses (Acting-note 1).
Domains is a very experimental and minimalist narrative and is, because of this, not a narrative for everyone. Less concerned with visuals, Kusano has crafted a narrative that plays with the function of the signifier in order to reveal truths about subjectivity and the place of a subjectivity within a relational network. Furthermore, by the very cyclic structure of the narrative, Kusano is able to evokes nothing other than the very fact that one’s subjective truth is ever constructed in cyclic retro-active way. But even with these beautiful evocations in mind, the narrative – happily indulging into this cyclic way of storytelling – is a bit too long. A shorter cut would, in our view, have been able to evoke the very same truths about subjectivity without affecting the experimental cyclic nature of the narrative.
Structure-note 1: In certain instances, especially in the opening hour of the narrative, the literal script is read-out-loud. In these instances, the signifier as such entices the imagination of the spectator. In other words, we are given the literal script so to imagine the context of the speech-exchanges for ourselves.
Structure-note 2: Because of the focus on the signifier, one can easily sense how the concatenation of signifiers generate meaning as such and how the ‘last’ signifier temporally fixates meaning.
Narra-note 1: The continuity of the reverse chronological way of unfolding of the narrative is sometimes broken by the repetition of certain scenes or certain parts of scenes. While these temporal oscillations elevate the importance of certain events for the narrative development, the repetition adds, in almost any case, additional information.
Structure-note 3: It is only in the later part of the narrative, when the scene-numbers are uttered as well, that the chronology is made explicit.
Structure-Note 4: Note that the first scene, which is part of the ‘true’ framing of the narrative, is never repeated. Furthermore, there are, throughout the narrative, various isolated environmental shots to be noted.
Besides the first scene, there is only one other scene that attains the feeling of being the ‘true narrative framing’.
Psycho-note 1: Note that the field of tension evoked in this narrative is the very same field of tension that is present in psychoanalysis. As the analysand speaks, as his metynomy of signifiers unfolds, he too will be subject to cyclicity in order to grasp some of his subjectivity.
Structure-note 5: Besides successfully evoking subjectivity, the narrative repetition also makes the spectator very perceptive of the differences at the level of speech and the various additions made to certain scenes. In other words, due to the fact that the narrative repetition empties meaning, one is able to feel the impact of additional signifier and the meaning-effect it structurally causes.
Cine-note 1: In the opening scene, there are two moments where a cut is visible. While these cuts may function as jump-cuts – indicating a time-jump, the scene itself seems to emphasize continuity. Due to this contrast, the function of the cuts is too vague and, as such, subtly disturb the cinematography.
Cine-Note 2: There are moments in the narrative where the cinematographical focus shift towards Nodoka’s subjectivity – her position in relationship to her husband and, to a lesser degree, her daughter, and the subjectivity of her husband.
Acting-note 1: Especially her performance in the opening scene of the narrative is wonderful.