Blank13 (2017) Review [Japannual 2018]

Introduction

While people may know Takumi Saitoh as actor (e.g. Re: Born (2017), Scoop! (2016), Jellyfish Eyes (2013), and 13 Assassins (2010), it might come as surprise that he released his first feature film in 2017. Based in a true story written by Koij Hashimoto – screenplay by Mitsutoshi Saijo – Saitoh’s first feature film even managed to win the grand prize at the Yubari International Fantastic Film Festival it premiered.

Review

One day, an elderly woman is about to attend Masado Matsuda’s funeral, when she realizes, due to a guy who comes out comes to confirming the diseased person’s name, that she is at wrong service – the service for Sotaro Matsuda (Lily Franky), who spend his living days gambling debts together. It becomes a rather awkward affair for Saori (Mayu Matsuoka), the girlfriend of Sotaro Matsuda’s youngest son Koji (Issey Takahashi), as each subsequent mourner that presents itself, blank1-e1557142369973.jpg
actually comes to mourn Masado Matsuda at the nearby temple.

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actually comes to mourn Masado Matsuda at the nearby temple.
When Saori enters the service hall, there are, besides the Buddhist priest, her boyfriend and his older brother Yoshiyuki (Takumi Saitoh), a handful of mourners.

From the very opening sequence – the blend of the imagery of the machines for cremation, the moving moment between the girl and the burning insect – it is apparent that the main theme of this narrative concerns the dead and, more concretely, our way dealing with those that departed us. Even though the narrative opens with an informative piece on cremation, the true focus of Blank 13 is the funeral as symbolic moment (Narra-note 1).

Besides introducing the spectator to certain aspects specific to the Japanese Buddhist funeral service, the narrative evokes, by contrasting one empty and one full service, the imaginary implication a funeral as symbolic event has: the perceived worth of a given subject within society. In other words, the narrative of Blank13

blank2.jpgimplicitly reveals how the societal Other, in the symbolic practice of the funeral, is felt to pass judgement on one’s societal worth.

The concrete elaboration of the subjective effects a funeral can sort is brought to the for by way of a very interesting narrative structure. While the funeral is the narrative’s endpoint, it is introduced as the narrative’s starting point as well as its middle-point. In the first cycle, it is only after a rather unconventional time composition, created by a thoughtful interplay between flashbacks and flash-forwards, that the narrative’s focus shifts from the present-day funeral to the final months of Sotaro Matsudo.

The flashbacks, so thoughtfully employed in the narrative’s first cycle, reveal the narrative’s focus on Sotaro as father as perceived from Koji’s subjectivity. Whether born from the temporal dimension of the funeral or the final months of Sotaro, these flashbacks, these memories, are ever those of Koij. As the fragments of memories concatenate, the spectator is not so much introduced to Sotaro as father, but to Sotaro as symbolically impotent, to Sotaro as failure at the level of the symbolic father. blank4.jpg
While Sotaro Matsudo is present in the family, he is only present as a father in debt, a passive father, an absent father, and a man who fails to bind the desire of a woman (Narra-note 1).

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While Sotaro Matsudo is present in the family, he is only present as a father in debt, a passive father, an absent father, and a man who fails to bind the desire of a woman (Narra-note 1).

But Koji also remember some good moments – moments circling around the signifier ‘baseball’. It is the realization of that happy moment that makes him decide to visit his terminally ill father after a blank of thirteen years. But as Sotaro’s life still appears to circle around signifier ‘money’, he eventually leaves conflicted (Narra-note 2). Note that it is only due to these two intersecting metonymical chains, i.e. the chain of ‘baseball’ and ‘money’, that Koji’s conflicting feelings are able to become evoked (Narra-note 3). It is thus not surprising that the first narrative cycle culminate in another flash-back composition, a composition with no other function than make the contradicting feelings Koji has towards the man marked by the signifier father painfully sensible (Narra-note 4).

In the narrative’s second cycle, the cycle where the funeral is framed as such and flashbacks only play a secondary role, a slightly more nuanced view, a view unrelated to his failed fatherhood as such,

blank6.jpg
of Sotaro is evoked. It is through the speeches of the various odd-ball mourners, while humorous in tone, that Saitoh is able to sensibly uncover the strength of the funeral as symbolic event: the making sure that one’s physical death is not a symbolic death (Narra-note 5 (spoiler)).

The narrative of Blank13 is framed by a concatenation of fixed shots, a concatenation only sporadically broken by a fluid moving shot or a subtle following movement. The application of colours to indicate the shifts to Koji’s childhood are not only visually appealing, but also subtly instrumental in guiding the narrative structure. The cinematographic composition is further refined by the various minimalistic musical pieces by Noboaki Kaneko. These compositions do not guide the cinematographic composition as such, but infuse the narrative space with a nuanced, intimate and slightly sad lingering feeling (Cine-note 1). While the musical pieces are generally marked by a subtle sadness, these pieces are also instrumental in giving

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Koji’s conflicting feelings towards the man that is his biological father, a sensible presence – a presence that in turn leads to a subtle but heartfelt narrative conclusion.

In the second cycle, various actors take the center-stage as the funeral proceeds. While the performances of Issey Takahashi and Mayu Matsuoka are already noteworthy on their own, the subtlety of emotion expressed by Takahashi at the narrative’s conclusion only becomes so moving because its its interaction with the enjoyable and touching performances of Jiro Sato, Sairi Ito, and Jun Murakami. While Yohta Kawase’s performance as gay may be a bit too stereotypical for some, his performance does not fail in supporting the subtle but moving framing Koji’s coming to terms.

By a variety of nuanced – and in some case slightly comical – performances, Blank13 is able to evoke a palette of subtle human emotions (e.g. sadness, disappointment, feelings of conflict) and make the coming-to-terms of Koji into a subtle but moving conclusion. By framing Koji’s coming-to-terms in a moving way, the often forgotten importance of the funeral as symbolic event is highlighted and the possibility to appreciate the human being beyond his failure as symbolic father is sensibly evoked.

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Notes

Narra-note 1: While the narrative opens with an explanation about the practice of cremation, the most interesting point revealed is not so much the fact that only human beings cremate their dead, but that 99 percent of the dead are cremated in Japan.

Narra-note 2: Koji’s meeting with his father disappoints as the man before him is the same impotent failure he has always been. In our view, Koji intended, driven by that happy fragment, to finally find something resembling a father in this man.

Narra-note 3: The way Yoko, the mother, functions in the narrative is not ideal as well. As the sole person scratching out a living, she eventually becomes an absence as well, leaving the older brother the role of both the father as the mother.

Narra-note 4: Note that, by hearing the news of the pregnancy of his girlfriend, Koji – as is subtle implied by the narrative – feels conflicted about becoming father in light of having been the son of a castrated father.

Narra-note 5: The symbolic event of the funeral allows Koji to accept his feelings of love for the man that failed the family as father.

Cine-note 1: The scene of the girl watching the insect burn becomes moving only because the intimate musical piece is able to subtly reverberate our culture of cremation.

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