The Goldfish Dreaming Of The Sea (2021) review [Japan Cuts 2021]

Introduction

While audiences might know Sara Ogawa from her work as an actress in drama’s like Black Scandal (2018) and Dear Patient (2020) and films like Beautiful Dreamer (2020), they might be surprised that she’s now trying her hand at directing. Can 25-year-old actress Ogawa proves that she also has a talent as a director?

Review

Hana (Miyu Ogawa) is a high school student who lives at the ‘House of The Children of The Stars’, a house dedicated for children that, for any kind of reason, cannot grow up with their parents. As she turns 18, she soon needs to leave foster care. One night, she tells Uncle Taka (Tateto Serizawa) that she ‘d rather start working instead of going to university. Taka is slightly dumbstruck because Hana has studied hard for the last few years.  

At the same time, a new child, Harumi (Runa Hanada) joins the foster care center. Seeing that Harumi refuses to interact with others, be it with the other children or with the adults that stand in for their care, Hana tries to befriend her. Eventually, she discovers various bruises on Harumi’s body.

The Goldfish Dreaming Of The Sea (2021) by Sara Ogawa

Sara Ogawa’s The Goldfish Dreaming Of The Sea is not only a narrative about a blossoming friendship, but also a subtle but highly evocative exploration about the need and difficulty to come-to-terms with one’s past. Ogawa explores this difficulty as well as this need through her main character, Hana.

In her narrative, the first question the spectator is confronted with is why Hana’s desire to go to university has suddenly disappeared. While she gives Taka a reason for her change of mind – i.e. one needs a signature of one of her parents to apply for a scholarship, the spectator easily feels that her reason is but an excuse and that the real cause of her refusal to apply for a university is function of a subjective problem (Narra-note 1). Her blindness for the subtle romantic attempts of Kanta (Nayuta Fukuzaki), a bullied student she helps, for that matter, also seems function of her unresolved problem.  

It is the spectator’s realization that such a subjective dynamic is in play that makes the question that underpins the unfolding of the narrative shift. Rather than asking why her desire shifted or why she remains passive in the field of romance, we are led to wonder what issue underpins her self-harming inhibition, or to put it more poetically, what the nature of the bowl is that imprisons her desire like a goldfish. Yet, as the opening shot implies, her complex concerns her mother, Kyoko (Kinuwo Yamada) and the fact that she has not yet fully worked through the radical separation between her and her mother.    

The Goldfish Dreaming Of The Sea (2021) by Sara Ogawa

Yet, the narrative does not only provoke questions about Hana, but also about Harumi. What kind of subjective complex underpins her reluctance to interact with the others and establish new social bonds? Just like Hana, Harumi’s complex concerns her mother. Yet, for Harumi, due to the freshness of her separation, her mother has an ever-present absence and the longing for her cannot be extinguished.

While the audience easily sees the similarities of the complex that underpins both subjects, it also does not take long for the spectator to feel that the solution of her own subjective deadlock partially resides in her success to (re-)open Harumi up to the world of others and the joys of the social bond. Yet, how can she undo Harumi’s refusal to interact with others in a constructive way? In short, by becoming, in a certain sense, a motherly instance for her, to become a haven from which she can explore her new social environment. And it is this motherly experience that might give her the chance to escape the grasp of the traumatic event that inhibits her and undo her own subjective deadlock (Narra-note 2).     

The composition of The Goldfish Dreaming Of The Sea – a well-balanced mix and subtle dynamic shots – stands out due to its pleasing compositional simplicity and its naturalism. The reason why Ogawa’s compositional simplicity engage the spectator is because she has the skill to infuse emotionality into the fabric of her narrative. With her thoughtful use of dynamic shaky framing, she emphasizes facial expressions, body-language, and certain interactions (e.g. the many interactions between the children) in such a way that the emotionality that marks the character’s body and face can become meaningful and touch the spectator’s being. And by using simple static long in a meditative way she allows the simple musical accompaniment (e.g. the piano pieces, the guitar-music,… etc.) to dictate the mood of her narrative and induce a certain melancholic or heart-warming emotionality in the spectator (Cine-note 1).   

The Goldfish Dreaming Of The Sea (2021) by Sara Ogawa

The naturalism of Ogawa’s narrative is both function of her choice to frame certain sequences with subtle shaky framing and her lightning design. The cinematographical element heightens the naturalism by infusing a documentary-like flavour into the narrative and the lightning design gives the wide range of colours a subdued but realistic feel.  

With The Goldfish Dreaming Of The Sea, Sara Ogawa proves that she has directorial talent and skill as a writer. She does not only offer the spectator a compelling narrative, but also pleases him/her with an engaging visual tapestry of naturalistic poetry that gives mundane events their rightful poetic dimension and their powerful evocative quality. It is, furthermore, Ogawa’s thoughtful lyricism that gives the emotionality of the performances their power to touch the spectator and enables her exploration of the difficulty to separate from one’s mother and the need for such separation to happen for subjective growth to resonate so vividly with the audience.    

Notes

Narra-note 1: The presence of a subjective issue is subtle revealed in her ‘violent’ act in the bathroom. By submerging herself in the water and cutting herself off from the ability of breathing Hana shows that a self-injurious tendency marks her.   

Narra-note 2: While Ogawa does not give a definite and clear answer to whether Hana can fully escape her subjective struggle or not, her ending-sequences does poetically imply that something in her has changed, that she has made a decision that allows her, as subject, to move forward.

Cine-note 1: Ogawa also combines dynamic shaky framing with the simple musical accompaniment to craft visual and narrative moments that are heart-warming and highly touching.  

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