Paradise Lost (2020) Review

Introduction

For psycho-cinematography, Japanese indie-narratives have always been important. Not only did our review of Tanaka’s indie-horror Bamy (2017) mark the true start of psycho-cinematography, the Japanese indie-movie community is psycho-cinematography’s life-source.

Therefore, being able to explore the various corners of the Japanese indie-scene is always a joy. This time, we focus on Kenji Fukuma’s latest feature film, Paradise Lost.

[Paradise Lost will be screened at Uplink Kichijoji from Friday 20 March and at Yokohama Cinema Jack and Betty from Saturday 11 April. For more dates, visit  https://paralosmovie.net/theater/ ]

Review

One day, in the suburbs of Tokyo, a secondhand-book seller named Shinya Yamaguchi (Shuhei Eto) collapses and eventually dies. After his death, his wife, Ayako (Misa Wada), starts dreaming about him and, sometimes, feels him beside her. She also starts to read the books he liked and notebook named ‘Paradise Lost’ he wrote.

A year passes. The loss of her husband may still be on her mind, Ayako is, luckily, not able to isolate herself. She is not only surrounded by her friend, Yuki Sasaki (Saori Kohara), and Yuki’s boyfriend, Kohei Kawamura (Bunyo Kimura), but also by Nobuyo (Yumeka Sasaki), Shinya’s punk mother, and Sho (Tengo Azuma), Shinya’s younger half-brother. Sho, who is preparing for his entrance examinations, harbours some feelings for Ayako.

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The title of Fukuma’s narrative paradise lost refer to the famous Paradise Lost tour of Bob Dylan and Patty Smith as well as to John Milton’s epic poem of the same name. Concerning the former, it is not the tour as such that is important, but the relational dynamic underlying this tour that is important to the narrative. Just like Bob Dylan invited Patty Smith, who had just lost her husband, to join him on this tour, Nobuyo, depressed due to Shinya’s father’s death, was invited by in Takeda on a ‘tour’. Moreover, Ayako, upon hearing this story, expresses a desire to have someone take her on a tour as well.

Concerning the latter, its reveal, at first, seems merely a repetition of the signifier ‘Paradise Lost’. But to fully able to understand the relevance of Milton’s poem for the narrative, one needs to know that the epic poem concerns the biblical story of the Fall of Man. Milton’s poem narrates the way Adam and Eve fall for the temptation of Satan, which leads to their expulsion from the Garden of Eden. After their expulsion, Arch Angel Michael conveys to Adam that he may find an even happier paradise within himself.

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A third time the signifier ‘Paradise Lost’ returns is as the name of Shinya’s notebook (Narra-note 1). This notebook is about Ayako’s late husband’s search to tell the truth. Which truth is meant by Shinya is hinted at by his statement that Tamiki Hara tells the truth in ‘The summer Flower’, which puts Hara’s experiences of the atomic bombing into a narrative, and in his final work, his suicide note, ‘Land of My Heart’s Desire’. Shinya’s search, in our interpretation, concerns the truth of the desiring being. The truth of the speaking being circles always around the notion of desire and love, as both able to inform the subject on how to live his life.

The triple presence of the signifier converge on the same question – the main question the narrative deals with: how can one live and become hopeful when one has lost one’s image of paradise? As the narrative takes this question as its guiding principle, Paradise Lost needs to be read as slow-moving exploration of subjects trying to re-find a place of hope within a world that has given up the notion of paradise. In other words, Fukuma offers a peaceful portrait of a various subjects, most of which trying to create, for themselves, a symbolic place, a place of desire, from where one can give sense to one’s own life. One could even argue that for our subjects finding a place from where one can desire or from where one can love is synonymous with finding a piece of paradise for oneself.

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That the current world lacks the desire to create an impossible-to-attain paradise, is evoked by Sho. After a rally against hate and racism – one slogan contains the signifier paradise, Sho and his friends talk about how to initiate change in Japanese society. The need for Sho and his friends to talk about initiating change in society implies of course that contemporary Japanese society is standing still – that no change for a better world is made. A later discussion about the indifference in the world also touching upon the same failure of realizing progressive change in the world. But does this political aspect not touch upon the same need for subjects to find a place to desire from? Is it not radically progressive for a society to allow each subject to realize his own place of desire?

The structuring of Paradise Lost by poetry, e.g. reciting poetry by Tamiki Hara and Yuji Kinoshita, makes Fukuma’s narrative very evocative, but, at the same time, more difficult to get into. Fukuma challenges the spectator with his play of poetry and that may be problematic for some spectators. Especially for the non-poetic minded spectators Fukuma’s latest may be very divisive.

What stands out in the cinematography of Paradise Lost, in Fukuma’s pleasant cinematographical mix of fixity and spatial movement, is his creative use of a myriad of cinematographical elements. One such element is the temporary freezing of the frame. By freezing the frame, Fukuma is not only able to reveal the sequence as a dream, but is also able to emphasize, within this dream-sequence, the meaningfulness of particular moments for Ayako, the dreamer, as such (Cine-note 1).

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Another element concerns the subtle compositional poetry. This is especially evident in how Fukuma utilizes his shots of nature. In the opening sequence of Paradise Lost for instance, the association of these shots with the signifiers uttered by the dying Shinya empowers the evocation of the dimension of the ephemerality of life. But this poetic potential is also realized in Fukuma’s evocative theatre-performance-like sequences – sequences that often break the fourth wall (sound-note 1). The sudden shift to a more interview-like styled framing and the use of a floating moving camera to equate the look of the spectator with the presence of Shinya are other ways in which Fukuma utilizes the versatility of the cinematographic dimension (Narra-note 2).

Paradise Lost might be devoid of any strong emotionality, but Kenji Fukuma’s poetically inspired narrative, which interweaves mundane episodes with fantastical sequences playing with the border between life and death, is an evocative experience that does – maybe surprisingly – not fail to touch the spectator. With Paradise Lost, Fukuma delivers a highly original – and maybe divisive – exploration of the subject’s need to secure a place for himself to desire from (General-note 1).

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Notes

Narra-note 1: Kohei’s script’s name is, for that matter, also called Paradise Lost.

Cine-note 1: Freezing of the frame is also used on other occasions. In these cases, there is no apparent link to dreams.

Sound-note 1: Either characters recite fragments of poetry or fragments of poetry are vocalized by a ‘narrating’ voice. In the latter case, poetry is used to accompany the concatenation of scenes.

Narra-note 2: Not only is his look made present, Shinya is also explicitly revealed as wandering in the narrative’s spaces.

General-note 1: For those who want to fully appreciate the evocative dimension of the poetry we recommend multiple viewings of Paradise Lost as well as a deeper exploration of the featured poetry – poetry from Tamiki Hara and Yuji Kinoshita.

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