Haruka’s pottery (2020) review [Camera Japan 2020]

Introduction

While Naruhito Suetsugu has been directing shorts (e.g. Timeless Kotohira) and commercial videos for a while, it is only now that he took the plunge and tried his hand at a full-length feature film. For his debut feature, he chose to adapt Taisei Nishizaki’s highly successful manga, Haruka’s pottery.

Camera Japan Festival 2020

Review

One day, while shopping in a department store with her boss, Haruka Koyama (Nao), a girl devoid of dreams and passions, stumbles upon an exhibition of Bizen Pottery. While perusing the exhibition, the beauty of a certain large plate touches her so profoundly that she decides to visit Osamu Wakatake (Hiroyuki Hirayama), the maker of the plate, in Imbe, Okayama and ask to become his apprentice. Before she has even said any word about becoming his apprentice, the reclusive Wakatake, who senses her intent, bluntly refuses her.    

Later that night, she meets Toujin (Takashi Sasano), a living national treasure. He tells her that the potter, in order to make pottery that touches people’s hearts, needs a will as unbreakable as Bizen Pottery and a passion hotter than the hot flames – 1200 degrees to be precise – baking the pottery. Moved by Toujin’s words, she returns to Wakatake’s house. The artful spectacle she admires there – i.e. Wakatake’s hands clay-sculpting a cup, cements her resolve to become his apprentice. 

Haruka's Pottery (2020) by Naruhito Suetsugu

While Haruka’s pottery offers a pleasant narrative about a woman finding her passion and a man who, by being forced to leave his reclusive position, is able become a true mentor, this double-sided narrative merely functions as a minimal narrative structure that enables Suetsugo to approach the true subject of the narrative, i.e. the Bizen Pottery, and deliver a detailed exploration of the longstanding tradition and the particularities of this art.

While some might view this structural narrative simplicity as a negative aspect, this simplicity does allow Suetugo to explore two important elements in play within human subjectivity and human inter-subjective relations: desire and lack. While both aspects are, of course, related, the aspect of desire is more evident in Haruka’s trajectory while the aspect of lack is more evident in Wakatake’s trajectory.     

Haruka's Pottery (2020) by Naruhito Suetsugu

So, what does Sakura’s trajectory show us about desire? In the encounter with the Bizen-plate, something happens at the level of Haruka’s subjectivity. But what happens at the level of her subject? Why is it only her that becomes mesmerizes and perplexed by this plate’s beauty? That the plate succeeds in touching the core of her being underlines that Haruka, as subject, sees in this plate a solution for a desire she has not yet fully assumed. But what is her desire? What desire does the ‘outlandish’ beauty of the plate reflect to her? In our view, the plate reveals her own (unconscious) desire to escape the ordinary life she feels imprisoned in (Narra-note 1). But the plate only confronts her with this desire because the plate offers a way to ‘chase’ this desire. Only by chasing this promise – i.e. going to Imbe and ask Wakatake to accept her as his apprentice, she fully assumes her desire to escape her easy-going but boring mundane life.  

And what does Haruka’s Pottery say about the lack? For that we need to explore Osamu’s trajectory. What does Osamu evade by focusing on pottery and refusing to put himself as subject in play in the social field? What he evades by successfully cancelling out the Other and short-circuit any establishment of an inter-subjective relation is nothing other but a subjective lack that he is not ready to accept. He avoids the Other and the other – read Haruka – as subject as to keep the lack that marks his subject out of play. Osamu can only truly accept Haruka as his apprentice (i.e. accept her lack with respect to crafting pottery) and become a mentor when he can accept his own lack and thus bring it into play within a relationship that can be called inter-subjective (Narra-note 2 (spoiler)).

Haruka's Pottery (2020) by Naruhito Suetsugu

Even though subtle dynamic moments are present in the composition of Haruka’s Pottery, Suetsugu relies more on static moments to visually guide the unfolding of the narrative. Moreover, it is evident from the beginning that the composition, by continually focusing on her via static shots as well as subtle dynamic shots, reveals that the main subject the narrative intends to follow is Haruka’s subject (Narra-note 3).

The repeated use of close-ups corroborates this focus – a focus on how she, as subject, experiences Bizen Pottery, Wakatake’s style of treating her, and the process of becoming a potter herself, while offering Haruka’s character as an object of identification to the spectator. She is offered as a point of identification, as a subtle mirror-image of the spectator, so that she, being marked by roughly the same lack of knowledge about the process of crafting Bizen Pottery and what it takes to become a Bizen Potter, can function as an implicit guide for the spectator. Even though, at various points of the narrative, Haruka implicitly teaches the spectator (what she has read in books), her growth in knowledge concerning the process of crafting this exceptional pottery and its philosophy roughly mirrors the spectator’s growth in knowledge about the process.

Haruka's Pottery (2020) by Naruhito Suetsugu

Haruka’s Pottery is, as one already might have suspected, explicitly addressed to those who might ‘know’ Bizen Pottery by name but do not really ‘know’ anything about it. For those spectators who are already knowledgeable about the tradition of Bizen Pottery, this narrative, in truth, offers nothing truly new or surprising. Haruka’s Pottery is, furthermore, a slow meditative narrative and will disappoint spectators accustomed to drama-rich narratives. Suetsugu’s narrative, in fact, only truly blossoms after its first hour. The initial hour, for that matter, is interesting but has its dragging moments (Acting-note 1).  

The cinematographical composition also succeeds in highlighting the beauty of Bizen Pottery – be it the beauty of making Bizen Pottery or the beauty of the finished product. In truth, much of the narrative’s visual pleasure is function of the exquisite way in which (the art of making) Bizen Pottery is visualized. By using geometry as such and utilizing the interplay between light and shadow, Suetsugu truly succeeds in bringing the inherent beauty of the pottery to the fore and turn his narrative into an loving and visually impressive ode to the art of Bizen Pottery.

Haruka's Pottery (2020) by Naruhito Suetsugu

Haruka’s Pottery is not narrative for everyone. Those spectators who have no real interest in the craft of pottery will find little to rejoice in this narrative, but for those spectators thirsty to know more about this Japanese traditional craft will not only receive a visually impressive meditative exploration of the art and the philosophy of Bizen pottery but also a better insight in how lack and desire functions within human relationships.  

Notes

Narra-note 1: The fact that Haruka becomes perplexed by a big plate and no other kind of pottery is rooted in an underlying infantile fantasy for a family happiness she never had. And can we not assume that the underlying motivation for Osamu to make large plates is a similar fantasy, i.e. a fantasy of establishing group of apprentices, and a desire for inter-subjective connection?

Narra-note 2: Osamu’s lack is brought into play within his relation to Haruka when he physically breaks down. It is solely due to his real lack, i.e. the confrontation with his mortality, that Osamu is able to bring his other lack into play, i.e. the desire for inter-subjective connection, accede to the position of mentor, and establish a true mentor-apprentice relationship.  

Psycho-note 1: Two signifiers that are all about accepting one’s lack are “I’ll do my best (gambarimasu)” and “Thank you” (arigatou).

Narra-note 3: Besides focusing on Haruka’s trajectory, the narrative also spends a decent amount of time on Toujin. This emphasis on Toujin is not to explore her subject, but to introduce the philosophy of making Bizen Pottery.

Acting-note 1: While Nao’s performance is good – and she has a nice presence on the screen, we do feel that some spectators will be put off by some of her more over-the-top emotional reactions.

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