Tadasuke Kotani might not be a well-known name in Japanese cinema but he did, with his limited oeuvre, succeed in impressing national and international audiences. His directorial feature film debut Lullaby (2002) won the second prize at the Kyoto International Student Film & Video Festival, his first feature-length documentary film Line won the Cult Award at the 2009 Torino Film Festival and his last documentary The legacy of Frida Kahlo (2015) received international acclaim.
When Hinako (Hinako Watanabe) arrives at her mother’s grave, she is surprised to see the grave decorated with cosmos flowers. Her father (Kanji Furutachi) calls her to inform her that he, due to the typhoon, is unable to come back. He expresses his frustration by repeating the signifier ‘tamaran’ (unbearable).
After a lecture about job-hunting, Hinako, on her way to the station, visits the bookstore to ask if they have any books about hometowns. The clerk proposes various books, but Hinako eventually buys a book echoing her father’s favourite swear word: ‘Tamaran Hill’. She soon finds herself entangled in the signifiers of the book.
Tamaran Hill opens by emphasizing the importance of explicitly fictionalizing/writing one’s ‘life’ and making a character of oneself to seduce the other, the recruiter who is looking for new blood for a company. This initial emphasis, important for the further development of the narrative and its conclusion, touches indirectly upon two different aspects of human life: the dimension of deception, more often than not self-deception, that is always in one way or another marks one’s ego and the fact that the subject as ego can only grasp himself and present himself to others as narrative.
Hinako’s subjectivity is marked by the absence of a mother, but this absence, despite being central to her subjectivity, remains outside; it is a hole, an emptiness. By reading Kuroi’s ‘Tamaran Hill’ she is not only able to grasp that the absence of a mother was tamaran (unbearable), she also able to take the first steps in narrativizing this subjective emptiness. The process of association that the reading of Kuroi’s novel instigates, enables Hinako to become fully aware of her emptiness, an awareness that allows her, via the same process of association, to subjectify or narrativize that what had up until then no true place within her own personal narrative (Narra-note 1).
The centrality of the process of association for the narrative’s unfolding underlines that Tamaran Hill is structured around the equivocal dimension of Japanese language (the Japanese lalangue) – Tamaran zaka, Tama-Ran zaka, Tama-no-Ran zaka, Ta-Ma-Ran zaka, Tamaran (unbearable) saka. It is, in fact, only by following the associative plays that the spectator can gain an understanding in Hinako’s subjective trajectory.
While subtle cinematographical movement is applied frequently, the cinematographical composition of Tamaran Hill, shot in monochrome colours, stands out because of its static moments/shots. The strength of the overall composition, that what makes certain visual moments linger in the spectator’s mind, lies, in other words, in the very shot-composition of these static moments, i.e. the use of geometry for compositional purposes. That Kotani tries to blend the boundaries of fiction and documentary – hereby evoking that documentary always has a structure of fiction – is apparent by the fluid way documentary-shots (i.e. the manuscript pages as well as the old photos) are integrated within the visual composition.
Another important aspect in Tamaran Hill concerns the way the narrating voice is applied. In this case, the narrating voice does not aim to translate the inner-thoughts of the characters as such, but to vocalize the act of reading or to blow life into the written words of conversations or descriptions. The latter kind of vocalization is always supported by a visual composition – characterized by a different aspect ratio – and accompanying sounds evoking the very atmosphere of said conversation or descriptions, but generally without showing, apart from a cat and some fingers, any characters of the book (Cine-note 1, sound-note 1). This rather evocative way of staging conversations from the novel, a staging playing with showing and not-showing, impels the spectator to fantasize that what is not shown and, thus, become an active participant in this visualized and vocalized act of reading.
That Hinako images a mother-figure – the only character visualized in the world of the novel, a world otherwise devoid of its characters, evokes nothing other than the power of literature to absorb the spectator and move the reader’s subjectivity. Kotani does not only evoke how the written signifier invites the spectator to imagine the world of the book but also how this fantasized world responds to the subjectivity of the reader. The presence of someone that closely resembles the position of the mother in Hinako’s visualization is, of course, related to the mother she, due her untimely death, never truly had and had to miss. The absence of such a mother figure, as beautifully evoked in narrative, is associated with the signifier tamaran (unbearable).
The different aspect-ratio and the reading voice is also used to visually underline that Hinako, as she is reading Kuroi’s book, has become completely subjectively invested in the narrative (Cine-note 2). While her investment is, of course, evident by Hinako’s urge to investigate – not unlike Yosuke in the book – the origins of the name ‘Tamaran Hill’, her entanglement only becomes truly sensible by the fragmentary phantasmatic memories – i.e. the beautifully animated sequences – the reading of the novel causes (Music-note 1, Cine-note 3). These cinematographical elements also echo, albeit indirectly, the fact that the trajectory of a subject has a narrative structure – i.e. whenever we speak about ourselves, we speak in narratives.
Even though Tamaran Hill is an adaptation of Kuroi’s book, it is far from a traditional adaptation. The narrative is, in fact, a fictionalized account of the relation a subject, the reader, forms with a book, in this case Seiji Kuroi’s ‘Tamaran Hill’. It is only by putting this relation on the foreground, by putting the subjective experience of reading on the foreground, that Kotani beautifully shows how important the signifier is for the subjectivity of the speaking being. The power of literature, as is beautifully implied, lies in the fact that it can deliver the signifiers by which the subject can further narrativize himself.
Narra-note 1: As is implied at various points in the narrative, Hinako’s father, due to his reluctance to speak of the past and his refusal to provide a narrative of her mother, is partially responsible for Hinako’s subjective emptiness and her inability to narrativize her mother.
Cine-note 1: These compositions can also be understood as the way Hinako visualizes the conversations in her mind. This understanding is supported by the fact that Hinako eventually imagines herself as the mother in the world of the book, a world, as can be said, she visualize/ imagines by following the signifiers of the book.
Sound-note 1: Sounds are also used to evoke the subtle memory of the past of certain spaces. In one case, the sounds of children talking underlines that Hinako vaguely remembers this place, this place that functioned, at one point in the past, as an orphanage.
Cine-note 2: Bear in mind that, even though the cinematography implies that Hinako has become a part of Kuroi’s narrative, she never becomes a character in the book as such. The cinematographical similarity only reveals how involved Hinako has become with the narrative and the signifier tamaran.
Music-note 1: In most cases, the animated sequences are accompanied by a recurring and somewhat haunting lullaby.
Cine-note 3: The phantasmatic memories are always framed with beautiful and evocative animation sequences. Why we call them phantasmatic will become clear in the movie as such.