Kontora (2019) review [Japan Cuts 2020]

Introduction

Does Anshul Chauhan make Japanese cinema? Yes and no. Yes, because the context of his narrative is Japanese and no, because his cinema is distinctively his. His cinema is, as contradicting as it may sound, outside and inside Japanese cinema at the same time.

But this is far from a bad thing. It gives him, in fact, more artistic freedom. Chauhan used this freedom in his debut feature Bad Poetry Tokyo (2018) to poignantly underline the destructive effects of abuse on subjectivity. How does he use this freedom is his second feature-film? Let’s find out.

Japan Cuts 2020

Review

One day, after coming home from school, Sora (Wan Marui) finds her grandfather sitting still in front a box of his old WWII memorabilia. While she, at first, thinks he is just sleeping, she quickly realizes he has died. When her father (Taichi Yamada) arrives home, Sora quickly hides her grandfather’s box under the bed. Not long after her grandfather’s funeral, Sora starts reading his war-dairy and becomes preoccupied by finding the “metal arm” he buried in the forest.

Around the same time, a mysterious man (Hidemasa Mase), mute and walking back-wards, wanders into town. One night, after a party at the place of her father’s cousin Yoshiji (Takuzo Shimizu), Sora’s father, drunk and angered by Yoshiji’s inappropriate proposition, accidentally hits the backwards-walking man with his car.

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The central dynamic animating the unfolding of Kontora is the tensive relation between Sora and her father. Their relation, as is made clear very early on in the narrative, is marked by a lack of inter-subjective communication. As a result, neither the father is called upon as father by Sora nor is the father able to approach Sora as his daughter. For Sora, the function/position of the father belonged to her grandfather. He was, for her subject, her father-figure (Narra-note 1 (spoiler)). Sora and her father may thus be father and daughter at a biological level and, as Sora uses the signifier ‘father’ to address her father, at the symbolic level, but Sora is not willing and her father, due to Sora’s refusal, not able to fully assume one’s respective role in relation to each other.

The car-accident catapults the mysterious man into their life, disturbing their current subjective positions and their problematic relationship. That this man is able to have an impact on both is solely do to the fact that he remains a strange element, an element that neither Sora not her father cannot grasp or master.

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The man’s position as being outside the societal field, as not participating in the social field, intrigues Sora. She wants to understand him, but his muteness and his ignorance of her speech, makes it impossible for her to grasp his Otherness and satisfy her thirst for understanding. Every act he does remains, despite Sora’s interpretations, equivocal (Narra-note 2 (spoiler)).

Her father, for that matter, feel uneasy and endangered by his presence. He is, as a matter of fact, unable (or not willing) to give a place to this ungraspable strange element, this element going – almost in a literal way – against the flow of societal functioning. His initial reaction is a reaction that reveals his failure to show openness for the Otherness he embodies.

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His position against the man as Other subtle reveals the fundamental problem in play between him and his daughter: the fact that he has difficulty to show openness to her subjectivity and her subjective struggle. Luckily, the dairy, which Sora is suddenly forced to reveal to her father, appears to be the element that allows them to restructure their relationship as father and daughter. The war-secrets of the grandfather around which father and daughter congregate do not only allow them to have, at the imaginary level, a common interest but also enables both of them, at the symbolic level, to express their own respective subjective position towards each other (Narra-note 3 (spoiler)).

But Kontora also explores two other conflicts, the conflict between Sora’s father and Yoshiji, who is, somewhat in caricatural way, pre-occupied with exploiting others for his own gain, and – this is the true focus of the narrative – Sora’s subjective conflict concerning the absence of a desire guiding her coming-into-being. The latter, of course, underpins Sora’s obsession with finding the ‘iron arm’ of her grandfather. But what is the true aim of her obsession, an obsession silencing Sora’s lack of desire? Is its ultimate aim not finding a sign of her grandfather, a sign that will enable her to start the process of mourning as well as accept the lack of desire that marks her, a sign that would allow her to break her subjective deadlock (Narra-note 4 (spoiler))?

Kontora (2019) by Anshul Chauhan

The cinematographical composition of Kontora – shot in beautiful black-and-white photography – stands out due to its compelling camera-movement. This floating movement, ever retaining a certain roughness, gives the composition a subtle poetic ethereal dimension and allows certain visual moments to become true aesthetic gems.

But what really blows life into Golomidov’s composition is the fabulous musical accompaniment. The music does not only complement the poetic black-and-white composition but – and this rather uncommon in Japanese cinema nowadays – also functions as an essential device to engage the spectator in the unfolding of the narrative as such. It is, in other words, the emotionally charged atmosphere of Chauhan’s Kontora, an atmosphere resulting directly from the cross-fertilization between Golomidov’s poetic cinematography and Yuma Koda’s versatile music accompaniment, that, from the very first minute to the last, captivates the spectator.

Kontora (2019) by Anshul Chauhan

With Kontora, his second feature-length film, Anshul Chauhan confirms his talent and versatility as director. Kontora does not only offer a compelling style – a cinematography marked by an aesthetic sensibility rarely seen in Japanese cinema – but also a substance, exploring in a very atmospheric but rather restrained way the difficulty subjects face in their attempt to break their subjective deadlock and start their search for a desire.

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Notes

General-note 1: While Kontora is a great experience on a streaming platform, this movie can only attain its full power, aesthetically and narratively speaking, in the cinema.

Narra-note 1: The fact that Sora’s grandfather fulfilled the function of the father is beautifully illustrated by the way she deals with her bicycle problem. She called upon him to solve her problem, but, after his death, she refuses to address her father and chooses to deal with it herself.

Narra-note 2: When the mysterious guy starts crying after receiving some of her grandfather’s clothes from Sora, three different interpretations are possible. One can interpret his sudden crying like Sora, as expressing his dislike for the clothes, but one can also interpret this crying as an expression of his gratitude. The third interpretation, the one we favour, interprets his sudden crying as responding to the grandfather’s war-time sadness that emanates from his old clothes.

Other moments in the narrative favour this interpretation and imply that the strange man and Sora’s grandfather are more intrinsically linked than seems at first sight.

Narra-note 3: The confrontation at the dinner table, a confrontation both enabling Sora and her father to give expression to their own subjective positions, underlines that Sora’s relationship with her father has, in contrast to her relationship with her grandfather, been a concatenation of missed subjective encounters.

Narra-note 4: When Sora, in a clear subjective crisis, confronts the mysterious man, she confronts him because his position echoes her own subjective deadlock. Her anger towards him is a projection of her own anger concerning her subjective struggle.

The one who feels insecure about her identity – who am I? – and is unable to move forward– why do I not move forward? – in her coming-into-being is Sora.

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