Life Finds a way (2018) review

Introduction

Another year, another cinemographic product by the Watanabe brothers. As Party ‘round the Globe got a glowing review, we wonder what Hirobumi Watanabe has in store for us with his new narrative.

Review

Even though Hirobumi Watanabe intends to write a script for a new movie, he is unable to write anything decent. As winter passes and turns into summer, his script remains largely unwritten. He spends his days catching crayfish and watching the world-cup. In order to find inspiration and break his writer’s block, he decides to start watching movies again. Not that much later, Watanabe’s doctor informs him of his abnormal test results and urges him to radically change his way of life.

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Life Finds a Way is what one can call a true slice of life narrative – with no real plot whatsoever, we follow the life of Hirobumi Watanabe as he tries to overcome his writer’s block and finish his script. The narrative, by being framed with cinematographical simplicity (see below), generally puts emphasis on speech, i.e. Watanabe’s meandering speech, and his noisy laughing. If we call Watanabe’s speech meandering, we aim to highlight that his speech flows naturally from one topic to another. Even though Watanabe talks about Dragon Quest 5’s system of marriage, Triple Fire’s music, the weather, the narrative of the grasshopper and the ant, the world-cup, his hate for film-critics, … etc., most of these subjects – a natural palette full of Watanabe’s complaints – are related one way or another to filmmaking and the writer’s block of our main character. Ultimately, all these subjects point to the questioning of cinema that underpins Watanabe’s narrative. Let us also note that some of these themes, like the world cup, ground this fictional narrative in a reality that can easily be situated in time.

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This questioning of cinema is approached from Watanabe’s subjective struggle. In other words, this questioning is function of how Watanabe’s relation towards making and watching films wavers, a wavering even bringing him to question his path of life. Despite this doubts, he still sets forth on the road to creating his new cinematographical narrative and getting it funded.

Calling Life Finds A Way subjective, we mean that the narrative solely unfolds by way of Watanabe’s speech acts and his corporal acts – both kind of acts of course taking place within a social context. Like Watanabe’s previous narrative Party ‘round the Globe, this narrative features car-monologues, but this narrative differentiates itself by balancing these monologues with more conventional composed narrative moments, moments that ground the slice-of-life narrative in a more conventional narrative mould and rhythm. Because of this grounding, Life Find a Way has become an easier narrative to get into – even if this getting into takes some time.

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Another narrative element concerns the referential dynamic that marks the whole of the narrative: the fact that the director plays himself as director struggling with a writer’s block. In other words, the narrative of the writer’s block has become the narrative of Life Finds a Way as such. The fact that Triple Fire’s music is used at various points in the narrative, a fact meeting with Watanabe’s in-narrative statement that their music would be great in a movie, further highlights the double position of Watanabe (Narra-note 1). This extremely entertaining referentiality is also evident in other elements of the narrative (Narra-note 2). One such aspect concerns the letter of criticism that Watanabe receives, a letter pleading him to change his profession as director and change his way of life. This letter – vocalized in the narrative while showing the easygoing and ever unchanging life-style of our main character – not only refers back to the narrative of the Grasshopper and the Ant, underlining its importance for the narrative’s structure as such, but plays with the referential nature of the narrative.

Eventually, the narrative leaves the slice-of-life angle when it tackles two chapters dedicated to interviews – one chapter dedicated to interviewing people within the narrative space and another dedicated to interviewing Hirobumi Watanabe himself. While the first interview chapter can still be placed within the earlier slice-of-life frame, the second chapter takes a more experimental turn, taking the referential nature of the narrative to its limit while explicitly putting the purpose of films into question.

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The narrative of Life Finds A Way is framed with a concatenation of fixed shots, shots that are often quite long temporally speaking, and, in some rare cases, following shots. By mainly resorting to the fixed shot and using simple cuts, Watanabe’s cinematography excels in its simplicity, a simplicity empowering the slice-of-life nature of the narrative.

When cuts are applied in scenes that rely heavily on speech, these time-jumps support the thematic dimension of the speech act, creating, by composing the scene, an artificially fluid unfolding of speech. So while speech fluidly explores different sides, the overall theme remains the same in the given scene (Narra-note 3). If the theme of the monologue-speech transforms, it’s ever function of an associative slipping towards the theme of filmmaking as such. (Narra-note 4). Other scenes, the more conventional composed scenes, are (logically) composed with a somewhat more conventional use of the cut; the a jump-cut. Most lightheartedness in the narrative depends on the way that the jump-cut is applied in the composition of scenes. Of course, there are also scenes that are hilarious because of their contents, like Watanabe’s meeting with the mayor and Watanabe’s dentist visit for instance. And even in the interview chapters of Life Finds a Way there are one or two moments – one moment full of self-relativism – that causes hilarity.

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There are some other stylistic choices that are worth noting, like the inclusion of an overture, a musical introduction that wets our appetite for the narrative to come and the inclusion of titles, structuring the narrative in chapters (Cine-note 1). Life Finds a Way is, just like Hirobumi Watanabe’s previous narratives, filmed in black and white. This stylistic choice gives the narrative space a nice atmosphere, an atmosphere further supported by the exquisite integration of the songs by Triple Fire.

While the sound-design is decent overall, there are nevertheless various moments, like the scenes in Watanabe’s local café for instance, where the spatiality of the sound reveals the low-budget nature of the narrative (Sound-note 1). While this is often sensible, it does not actually problematize the experience of the narrative as such. The lighthearted nature of the narrative is furthermore highlighted by Yuji Watanab’s music. Another minor problem can be found at the level of the acting. Riko’s actress for instance, looks in a certain scene rather strangely at the camera, as if she was looking for confirmation.

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Life Finds A Way is another a fantastic narrative from the Watanabe brothers. Lighthearted and often hilarious, this narrative, by touching upon the internal doubt a writer’s block, his creative crisis, can cause, questions the very position of cinema as such. What makes this narrative so enjoyable is not so much the fact that all the elements of Watanabe’s trademark style are present, but because the self-referential nature of the narrative – something functioning as an internal joke, gives the narrative an elegant comedic dimension. As such, Life Finds A Way might very well be Watanabe’s best work yet.

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Notes:

Narra-note 1: When Watanabe talks about using their music in a yet to be written movie in the narrative, one should realize that the very movie they are watching is already supported by Triple Fire’s music. Watanabe has in fact created a tongue-in-the-cheek self-referential paradox.

Narra-note 2: Let us also note that the referential nature of the narrative also extends to Watanabe’s collaborators, like for instance his cinematographer. While he is framing the narrative, he is referenced in the narrative as such.

This is even explicitly revealed in the scene with the mayor. The mayor, when talking about the Korean Cinematographer, points toward the camera as well as directing his gaze to the person behind the camera at two different moments.

Narra-note 3: This is extremely clear in Watanabe’s monologues exploring the intercultural differences of understanding the Grasshopper and the Ant.

Narra-note 4: One such associative slipping concerns the slipping from the Grasshoppers and the Ant’s tale to Watanabe’s critique on the Japanese film industry.

Cine-note 1: While the music is most important for an overture, we want to underline the fixed shot that supports this musical introduction. This shot gives a view on a busy street with cars, trains and pedestrians passing in a rhythmic way.

Sound-note 1: One other aspect that we have to mention about the sound-design is the fact that some sounds have to tendency to sound too sharp.

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