Nobuhiro Suwa might not be a well-known name in Japanese cinema, but his limited oeuvre is littered with films that have impressed audiences and earned awards. With his debut feature film, 2/Duo (1997), for instance, Suwa impressed audiences with his unique improvisational filmmaking style and with his film M/Other (1999) he won, among other awards, the FIPRESCI Prize at the 52nd Cannes Film Festival.
In 2011, the Tohoku Earthquake and subsequent tsunami killed more than 15,000 people. That day, Haru (Serena Motola) lost her parents as well as her brother to the destructive power of the tsunami. One day, eight years after disaster struck Haru’s hometown Otsuchi, Haru’s aunt Hiroko (Makiko Watanabe)) suddenly talks about visiting Otsuchi soon and invites Haru, who is now living with her in Kure, Hiroshima, to come along. She subtly refuses.
After returning from school, Haru finds her aunt collapsed in the kitchen. While she remains strong, the renewed confrontation with the frailty of life quickly causes a subjective breakdown. Following this breakdown, Haru decides, seemingly unmotivated, to undertake a hitchhiking journey to her hometown.
Haru is a girl who has yet to process and work through her loss – the death of her family. She has, in other words, yet to complete the grieving process. Due to her failure to give her loss a place, she remains a lost apathic subject – a subject not knowing what to do with her life, a subject that, by avoiding the process of working-through the loss that marks her, remains at a subjective standstill.
If we approach Haru’s position from Elisabeth Kübler-Ross’s theory of the process of grieving, one could say that she finds herself in the second stage, the stage of anger. She is conscious of the painful loss that marks her subject but escapes the confrontation with this loss by transforming the pain into anger: “Why did I lose everything?”. But if we over-rely on this theory and its so-called stages, we would be left unable to appreciate the subjective standstill that Haru’s failure of working through this loss causes.
This subjective standstill is made explicit by the state of extreme apathy that follows her emotional outburst of anger. This sudden state of extreme apathy is nothing other than a state where Haru, whose subject is evacuated, joins (or identifies with) the nothing, the nothing associated with a symbolic death. At this point, Haru has only two options: do nothing at a subjective level – Haru as lost apathic subject – and avoid the loss that marks her or become (via a regression to an extreme apathic state) the “loss” at the subjective level as such. Whatever option Haru ‘chooses’, she is unable to subjectify the loss and escape her subjective standstill.
When the apathic Haru starts undertaking her hitchhiking journey, she does not know why she does it. She is compelled to do it, but without knowing what truly drives her to undertake this long journey from Kure to Otsuchi. The journey is, nevertheless, the fundamental condition that will enable her to start the process to subjectify her loss and escape her subjective deadlock – to become alive as subject once again.
If the journey allows Haru to reanimate her subjectivity it is because this journey confronts her with humanity in all its diversity and allows her to speak about her loss. Concerning the confrontation with humanity, she does not only experience the death and loss that marks others, the wonder of producing life, and the liveliness of others, but also the helping hand of the other as well as his violent hand who, driven by a need to enjoy, aim to take advantage of her (Narra-note 1, Narra-note 2). Concerning the latter, her journey creates opportunities that allows her to speak, however minimal it may be, about her loss and affirm this loss in the symbolic, among others within language. What Suwa thus shows with his narrative that the process of subjectifing loss always happens in relation to the Other via the use of the signifier (Narra-note 3 (spoiler)).
The defining character of Suwa’s composition concerns the temporal length of his shots – be it fixed shots or slow-moving shots – and his reluctance to overuse cuts. Suwa’s unhurried slow-moving composition also reveals him as a director that thinks deeply about spatiality and the placing of his camera within the space that is to be narrativized. It is only by placing his camera at well-chosen points that he can minimize the need for cuts and maximize the emphasis on the characters (e.g. Haru, …) and the interactions these characters have within the frame.
Suwa’s attention for spatiality furthermore allows him to craft some truly pleasing shot-compositions – shots that utilize geometry in a way that truly makes the shots visually interesting.
Serena Motola’s performance is truly powerful. What makes her performance – a performance carrying the narrative as a whole – so engaging is nothing other than its naturalness. It is the naturalness of Serena’s performance that makes the emotions (e.g. of anger, sadness, apathy, …) she expresses feel genuine and allows the spectator to feel what she emotionally experiences and experience the subtle emotional transformation she undergoes due to her road-trip.
Voices in the wind is a slow but beautiful meditation on the necessity for the subject to utilize the signifier and speak with others and to the Other in order for start the process of subjectify the loss/the real that has derailed them. What Suwa, in fact, powerfully reveals is that no subject can overcome his loss without the Other. Nevertheless, Suwa’s road-movie might be too slow at some points, endangering the possibility of the spectator to fully appreciate to narrative’s subtly delivered message and Serena Motala’s impressive performance.
Narra-note 1: Her refusal to be enjoyed or to give herself as object to enjoy affirms, in this case, her desire to life, not only as living being but also as subject. What keeps her from committing suicide and join her family is her unspoken desire to life.
Narra-note 2: One very poignant kind of loss touched upon in the narrative is the loss that marks the Kurdish family and the Kurdish community. The Kurdish family lacks the father, due to his detainment by immigration, and the Kurdish community lacks a country to call home.
Narra-note 3: While Haru’s monologue in the finale contains the same anger and sadness as before, her monologue becomes, by virtue of the device of the phone that gives an address to her speech, a more functional and constructive dialogue with the Other. This dialogue, fueled by her experiences on the road, allows her to assume her desire to live and reanimate her process of becoming a subject.