Town Without Sea (2020) review [Japan Cuts 2021]

Introduction

Most people will know Elaiza Ikeda as model or as actress from films like Kakegurui – Compulsive Gambler (2019), Not Quite Dead Yet (2020), and Kiba: The Fangs of Fiction (2021). Now, with Town Without Sea, Ikeda tries to prove that she also has talent as a director. Can she convince us?

Review

One day while hanging out with his friend, Sho (Yuki Kura) learns that his best friend Taiga (Roy Ishiuchi) is going to stop Taiko practice to focus on studying for his university entrance exams. Sho, for that matter, is unable to make any decision about his future.

A few days later, at the shop to get the claws of Midori, the bird of his grandfather Masakatsu (Lily Franky), trimmed, Sho encounters a strange young woman, Miyako (Nari Saito). One day, while talking to Taiga about this woman on the rope playground, Miyako’s voice calls them out, asking them if they are talking about her.    

Town Without Sea (2020) by Elaiza Ikeda

Town Without Sea is, in short, a narrative about young people who struggle to find, assume, or regain a desire. That Sho, as subject, is devoid of a desire to guide him in his life is vividly underlined by his confession that he wants to become air. Yet, we should not understand this statement as revealing what his desire is. Rather, with this statement he reveals the current state of his being. He is, in all meanings of the signifier, air. There resides in him nothing other than subjective emptiness – no dreams, no desires, no sense of who he is or wants to be.

It is because of the emptiness that marks his being that he, in the past, followed Taiga and let his desires and decisions guide his own trajectory (e.g. which high school to go to, joining taiko drumming, …etc.). Yet, now at the crossroads of his young life, Taiga cannot function as his guiding light anymore. Rather than giving Sho a direction to follow, Taiga’s sudden decisions alienate him, leaving him all alone with his own very libidinal and subjective emptiness.  

Town Without Sea (2020) by Elaiza Ikeda

Sho is, in fact, charged with the task to find a desire that he can assume as being his own, a desire that will not only act as a guide towards attaining a form of happiness, but will also allow him to animate him as body as well as subject – and thus let him make subjective decisions (Narra-note 1, general-note 1). Yet, while the spectator rightly assumes that Sho will find something that functions as a desire, Ikeda fails to make this moment emotional enough. While the mundane treatment of this transformative moment has its virtues, a more cathartic approach would, in our view, have made the delivery of message of the narrative more satisfying.

Miyako, despite her dreamy and free-spirited presence, is also marked by a subjective problem that concerns her desire. The reason why she escaped to Tagawa is because in Tokyo her desire to sing was slowly being extinguished by the Other’s desire or the desires of others. By singing what the others wanted (to hear), she alienated herself from her own subjective desire and become unable to fuel her singing and lyrics with her own subject (Narra-note 2).

Town Without Sea (2020) by Elaiza Ikeda

It is by exploring the various subjective problems of our youths that Ekida succeeds in delineating where happiness can be found. Happiness is, according to her narrative, to be found within the social bond where not only something of a subjective desire can come into existence but is also allowed, by the subject’s significant others, to come to full blossom. Or, in other words, Town Without Sea shows that the possibility to find happiness lies in the very bonds that we form with others.

The composition of Town Without Sea stands out due to its dynamism. Each scene is, in a certain manner, marked by Ikeda’s love for cinematographical movement. This is not only apparent in those moments where she delivers a rich and rather fast-paced intermingling of spatial and tracking movement but also in her choice to decorate more static moments with shaky framing and infuse measured moving moments – quite often tracking movement – in her composition whenever it fits.

Town Without Sea (2020) by Elaiza Ikeda

Ekida’s reliance on dynamism allows her to craft some truly visually pleasing shots – e.g. the shot exploring the sumptuous dishes adorning the dinner table. Moreover, this reliance enables her play with the device of contrast and make certain static shots meaningful and evocative (Cine-note 1). In certain instances, the sudden insertion of a static moments allows her to sensibly underline the emotional impact that certain signifiers have on the character in focus or to emphasize certain facial expressions or the lack thereof. In fact, Ekida spends many static moments to make the spectator feel the subjective emptiness that marks Sho’s face (Cine-note 2).

With Town Without Sea,Elaiza Ikeda proves that she has potential as director. She does not only show that she has a refined compositional sense, but also that she has the skills to deliver a narrative in a visually engaging way. Yet, while she delivers a visually engaging narrative about the nature of happiness and the importance of desire that is highly relevant for Japanese youth, Ekida sadly forgot to give Sho’s subjective change the emotional weight it needed. A bit more emotionality would have allowed her message resonate more deeply with her audiences.

Notes

Narra-note 1: Taiga’s dream to become a civil servant is not only driven by his consciousness that having a stable income is important, but that such income is necessary to attain what he has assumed as his happiness, the happiness of establishing a family. Yet, one should question whether Taiga considers this desire as being his own and this happiness as something he wants to pursue with his subject. Maybe, the need to pursue this mundane dream is not driven by his desire but imposed by the societal Other that embraces him.

General-note 1: The books Sho receives from his teacher play an instrumental role in his ‘quest’ to find his own desire or his own conception of happiness. The books include Rousseau’s Emile (1762), a book about Eudaimonics, a book written by Michizo Tachihara,… etc.    

Narra-note 2: The importance of Sho’s act – i.e. giving back her guitar and saying that he wants to hear her play – should not be understated. With his act, Sho does not only succeed in asking her to reveal something of her subject, but subtly orders her not to give up on her desire. But can Miyako’s desire to sing ignite again by this simple act?

Cine-note 1: Static shots are also used as establishing shots, to frame some conversations, or to visually please the spectator with a particularly nicely geometrically composed shot.

Cine-note 2: Sho’s face devoid of passion/desire is visually contrasted with Miyako’s passionate face when she is singing and Taiga’s face when he is drumming. This contrast powerfully reveals the fact that there is no subjective desire that can animate his body.

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