Kushina (2018) review [OAFF 2018]

Introduction

Having won the JAPAN CUTS Award at Indie Forum of the Osaka Asian Film Festival, Moët Hayami can already say that her debut was a success. This debut, made for her mother as a tribute to her, not only mesmerized with its visuals but also with its message – which has, in truth, nothing to do with patriarchy.

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Review

Deep in the mountains, far away from the modern world, a village exists where only women live together. The village, a refuge for those who struggled with modern societal life, was founded by Onikuma (Miyuki Ono), a strong-willed yet kind-hearted woman who, 14 years ago, fled the city with her 14 year old pregnant daughter Kagu (Tomona Hirota).

One day, Soko (Yayoi Inamoto), an anthropologist, and her male assistant Keita (Suguru Onuma), after various failures, set out again to seek this secluded village. The reason why Soko wants to visit this isolated community is to record and prove the existence of human beauty. This time Soko and Keita succeed, by following Kagu’s 14 year old daughter Kushina (Ikumi Satake), in finding the town, not knowing that their arrival will change things forever.

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The main theme Kushina deals with is the ‘oppressive’ power of desire. This is first alluded to by a women whose words imply that she has fled modern Japanese society due to the societal oppression/pressure she was subjected to. She escaped the oppressive presence of an ideal image one is forced to live up to. While living at this small-community gave her the ability to life a freer life – “live the way I want and die the way I want”, she can in truth never fully attain her freedom. Attaining full freedom is impossible due to the real needs of our body and the social needs of the community limit, at every step, our freedom.

What Kushina as a narrative wants to evoke remains, despite the early allusion, unclear up until the very end. It is by way of a surprising narrative twist that Hayami suddenly reveals her message to the spectator: the very fact that a desire to protect someone is oppressive as well. Such desire, while good-natured at the surface, forgoes listening to the other and his particular desire. Protecting another always, in other words, satisfies and serves the desire of the protector. This twist further underlines that what truly limits our desire in the social field is the desire of the other/Other. If one truly care for someone, one needs, often against one’s own desire, to give the person the time and space to chase his own desire.

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Additional elements worth mentioning are the impossibility of being fully self-sustainability and the particular way Keita and Soko disturb the community – and allow, in this respect, the clashing between desires. Concerning the problem of sustainability, we can note that due to the fact that only women are allowed to life in the village, the community always remains precarious. As the influx of new people is limited, the small community is always in danger of becoming completely unsustainable. The fact that the community is already unsustainable at the level of the wishes and needs everyone needs is already underlined by the fact that an ‘economic’ link to the outside world still exists. Various women are, in other words, unable to part with the little joys of modern society, like sugar, chocolate, soap, towels, sweet bun with bean jam, …  etc.

That Soko and Keita’s arrival disturbs the all-female community is mainly due to Keita’s presence (Narra-note 1). Keita disturbs, merely by being male, the life of the various women in the village. Being the only male to ever visit the village, he immediately becomes the center of interest for the young women. The desire to escape societal pressure has, in other words, not extinguished the desire for romance, their desire to become mother.

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Soko is also treated as an foreign presence. But rather than wanting to interact with her, the women ignore her, underlining her position as one of non-belonging. Her intrusive presence by influences the behaviour of the women and thus contaminates the ability to record the daily life of the women. As long as the community does not accept her presence, Soko will remain unable to find the beauty of humans she so desperately wants to find in the interactions between the women of the community.

Only Kushina allows Soko’s presence. She allows Soko to film her, converse with her and establish a bond with her. Kushina’s position is, within the community, the most radical. She is the only one in the village who does not know the outside world and the only one who is not emotionally marked by the outside world. It is this pure position of non-knowing and her desire to know that allows her to be open to outsiders and accept Soko. But this bonding is, of course, not to everyone’s liking.

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The framing of Kushina – a cinematographical blend of fixity and spatial and following movement, often within the same shot – is slow-paced (Cine-note 1). Hayami’s visual compositions are not unhurried because of way cuts are used, but due to utilizing slow cinematographical movement and by emphasizing, within shot-concatenations, contextualizing shots of nature (Cine-note 2).

The compositions of Kushina are, in fact, full of beautiful shots of nature. These shots do not only bring the beauty of nature as such to the fore, but also vividly underline the peacefulness nature exudes and the peacefulness that marks the daily life of the women in the village. This beauty as well as the unhurried peacefulness of living in harmony with nature is also emphasized by the sounds of nature (bird chirping, splashing water, the subtle rustling of the wind, … etc.) as well as by the calm musical accompaniment.

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Kushina also utilizes a narrating voice, i.e. the voice of the anthropologist, in order to add another layer to the narrative. Due to this narrating voice, a voice recounting dairy fragments, the narrative is not merely an exploration of the inner-working of an all-female community, but also an evocation about how Soko, being an external point within this community, experiences and analyzes their way of living.

Kushina is an impressive debut. Impressive not only due to meditative compositions (i.e. the fluid combination between visuals, sound and music) that explore the beauty and peacefulness of nature but also because Hayami succeeds in formulating her personal message in a clear and impactful way. Kushina is, similar to 37 seconds (2019), a strong statement against suffocating parental desires, desires that do not give the child the necessary space and time to let his own desire comes to fruition.

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Notes

Cine-note 1: Shaky video-cam footage as well as shaky framing are also applied in the visual composition of Kushina.

Cine-note 2: There is also one more faced-paced ‘party’ sequence. The fast-pace of this sequence is function of fast on-screen movement, faster cinematographical movement, and the lively electronic music.

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