Even though we were only able to review one Japanese narrative (Siblings of the Cape (2018)) screening at the Tokyo International Film Festival last year, we still aim to track down the other narratives that screened at the festival. One of these narratives is Kensei Takahashi’s graduation work, which was screened at the Japanese Cinema Splash section.
While Hiroshi Watanabe (Satoshi Abe), a newspaper delivery man, appears to be ordinary shy, non-talkative person, he is marked and subtly haunted by an unresolved past event, a past event marked by impotence.
12 years ago, on a grey afternoon, Hiroshi was forced by his classmates Kengo (Seijyuro Mimori) and Tatsuya (Seiya Okuda) to join them on their trip to the beach. When Rie Murakami (Arisa Sato) passed by, Hiroshi was ordered to invite her over. After having returned from buying drinks, Hiroshi found Kengo and Tatsuya assaulting Rie in a nearby boatshed. Even though Hiroshi felt he had to intervene, he ultimately fails to do so.
Sea has a rather simple two-level structure. The first narrative level concerns the present – the current subjective reality of Hiroshi – and the second level concerns Hiroshi’s past, a past that reveals one particular defining moment, a moment that defined Hiroshi’s subjective trajectory over the course of twelve years. While the first slip from the present to the past happens as an act of remembering – as visually underlined, the other flashbacks chronologically unfold up until the moment that the past dissolves into the present.
While the narrative highlights the power-structures that are present in the social fabric of high-school life, what’s more important for the narrative is Hiroshi’s passiveness as such. This passiveness is not only sensible in the fact that he subjects himself within relations of power (i.e. subjects himself to Tatsuya and Kengo, but also in the fact that he struggles to find his future path – a path that ultimately concerns one’s desire. This passiveness is the ultimate cause of Hiroshi’s inability to intervene when Rie is getting assaulted by Kengo. While we do see Hiroshi making a subtle (but late) attempt to halt the raping, the fact remains that he, as he continues to be subjected to Tatsuya, remains confined to this passive position.
The narrative succeeds in highlighting the weight of the transgression, the weight of the assault, in a confronting way without having to resort to an explicit framing. One could say that the impact of this the scene, its confronting nature in other words, is born from the very meeting of the subtle sounds of the assault and Hiroshi’s immovability. His failure to respond to the demand present in Rie’s screams is made painfully present by the subtle sounds of the waves, the sounds of the sea. It is not wrong to situate the cause of Hiroshi’s present position in the clashing of his passiveness with the penetration of trauma in Rie’s subjectivity. While this meeting leads first and foremost to feelings of guilt – feelings that are only implied, this initial passiveness, his confronting impotence, also leads Hiroshi to make a different decision when faced with a similar situation at the coming-of-age celebration (Narra-note 1 (spoiler)).
Due to thoughtful way Takahashi is able to frame both events, the event by the sea and the event at the celebration, he is able to turn his narrative in a truly powerful exploration of how one’s subjective action or failure to act, an act ever taking place within the dimension of the social, can guide one’s subjective trajectory and how this act or non-act ever affects other subjects (Narra-note 2).
The cinematography of Sea largely consists out of a mix of fixed shots, semi-fixed shots – either shots touched by subtle movement or shots touched by shakiness, and following shots, be it fluid or shaky (Cine-note 1, Cine-note 2). As can be expected, the various moments of shakiness ground the feeling that the camera, even as fixed moments pass by, is documenting a given reality. In other words, this subtle grounding heightens the dimension of reality, the dimension that this subjective narrative could very well have been real. Beyond this dimension of naturalism, there lies an even more important dimension, the subjective dimension. One should not fail to notice that shakiness is most often present in those moments that define Hiroshi’s subjective path.
But Sea’s cinematography is not limited to this element of cinematographical naturalism. At various moments in the narrative, Takahashi reveals his fine sense of composition – a sense sensible in in-shot as well as in between-shot compositions – and his boldness to more unconventional structured shots in concatenation of shots that propels the narrative forward.
The framing of the narrative spaces is given a certain ‘emotional’ flavor by the washed-out colour-design. As most brightness and warmth is subtracted from the colours present in the narrative space, most of the narrative spaces are marked by a somewhat depressive atmosphere, an atmosphere that evokes the difficulty of finding happiness (Narra-note 3). The atmosphere of the narrative spaces is – and this is not unimportant – supported by a clear and pleasing sound-design.
While each performance in the narrative is natural, it is Misaki Mitsuzaki, who plays Kato Ringo, that steals the show. One can even contend that her amazing performance, especially her touching performance in the penultimate scene, deprives the last scene of its power, while at the same time empowering the impact of the very final seconds of the narrative.
Sea is a powerful and touching subjective drama, a narrative, that beyond touching upon the dimension of trauma, show how a subject by acting or by failing to act defines his position and his course in life as well as impacts the position and course of life of another. As this narrative reveals and displays Takahashi’s talent in cinematographical composing and in evoking natural emotions, one cannot do wrong by keeping an eye on his future projects.
Narra-note 1: This situation concerns Tatsuya’s raping of his former girlfriend, Kato Ringo (…) , in the bathroom of the restaurant. Instead of remaining passive, he sets out with an empty bottle of beer to attack him, eventually murdering him. One should feel that Hiroshi attacks two things: Tatsuya’s raping as such as well as his subjection to him (and Kengo).
Of course, this offence leads to imprisonment. After his imprisonment, Kato Ringo helps him reintegrate again in society. The latter part of the narrative focuses on this reintegration.
Narra-note 2: The end of the narrative is a ‘dull’ surprise. We do not aim to use dull here in a negative sense, but in the sense that the end feels unfair – the very feeling the narrative sought to evoke. If furthermore seems to underline the fact that there some things, due to being in a field with human beings, that are not under our control.
Narra-note 3: The narrative ultimately highlights that Hiroshi has found a certain happiness with Kato Ringo.
Cine-note 1: As more fixed moments are present in the cinematographical mix as well, one cannot say that shakiness completely defines the framing of the narrative.
Cine-note 2: In some instances, the shaky fixed shot subtle incorporates a spatial movement. In other instances, fixed moments are mixed with following moments within one shot.