With They Say Nothing Stays The Same, one of Japan’s most famous actors, Jo Odagiri (Miwa Nikikawa’s Sway (2006), Satoshi Miki’s Adrift in Tokyo (2007), and Nobuhiro Yamashita’s Over the Fence (2016), finally had the courage to pursue his long lost desire to become a director.
But while They Say Nothing Stays The Same is advertised as his first feature film, it is not really his debut. Odagiri’s true first feature film, his true debut, was in 2009 when he wrote and directed the comedy Looking for Cherry Blossoms (2009).
Japan, Meiji Period. Toichi (Emoto Akira), an old boatman who lives a rather reclusive life, is still operating at the river serving whoever needs his services. But his services might not be needed in the near future, as the construction of a bridge not far from his place is already well under way. One night, while boating back to his house, he rescues a mysterious young woman, Fu (Ririka Kawashima), from drowning. Her presence will slowly, as if she was wind, alter Toichi’s life.
With They Say Nothing Stays The Same, Odagiri explores two different kinds of change, two different ways in which things never stay the same. The first kind of change – the most radical one – concerns the change related to technological progress. With his narrative, Odagiri beautifully unearths the very process by which progress impacts subjectivity – subjectivity as being defined by the symbolic place within society. As progress radically restructures symbolic structures, some subjects who had a certain (crucial) symbolic place within the ebb and flow of society suddenly find themselves being robbed of such position. Progress makes symbolic victims. It impacts subjectivity by reorganizing the very symbolic Other that establishes (or abolishes) a certain position for a certain subject within its fabric (Psycho-note 1).
Progress is in They Say Nothing Stays The Same mainly evoked via the construction of the bridge (Narra-note 1). All the sounds originating from this construction, the sounds of modern society, are, for the boatman, nothing other than a ticking clock, a clock that, when it strikes twelve, effaces the very need for his symbolic position within the social fabric. Contrary to one might think, Odagiri’s narrative is not about the loss of cherished traditions. At no point whatsoever in the narrative does Odagiri lament the inevitable erasure of Toichi’s social position. The plain truth, a truth Toichi is repeatedly reminded of by various ‘Meiji-modernized’ Japanese customers, is that once the bridge is made, not many will miss him. But how can one deal with such a loss?
The second kind of change is a change related not to meeting but to encountering another person as subject. What can possibly happen when a subject meets another subject? It creates the possibility for both subjects to establish a new symbolic position. A subject, by being subjected to the symbolic system by language, can re-find a way to subjectify himself via an intersubjective relation. While society can efface a symbolic position (by erasing the need for certain “inter-ego” relations, i.e. the relations between boatman and customer), Odagiri shows that intersubjective connection ensures that both subjects are able to secure or invent a minimal subjective position in relation to each other, in this case as father and daughter.
What Odagiri’s composition does well is emphasize and make sensible the rhythm and monotony of the boatman’s daily life. Odagiri does not only achieve this by relying on temporally long shots, thus mimicking the slow-paced life in a cinematographical way, but also by focusing, with mesmerizing cinematography (by Christopher Doyle), on the stillness of the ferryman’s peaceful and beautiful natural environment, thereby emphasizing the very harmony he, as ferryman, has with the (rather undisturbed) cyclicity of nature.
But the evocation of monotony and cyclicity does not only depends on the visuals alone. Another aspect that plays a fundamental role in emphasizing the rhythm of the boatman’s monotonous life and the stillness of nature concerns the exquisite minimalistic sound and music-design – music is courtesy of Armenian jazz pianist Tigran Hamasyan. Especially the former, the sound-design, is highly effective in highlighting the peaceful character of nature, a nature whose peacefulness only gets disturbed by the shouts and sounds of society, i.e. by those who want to cross the river and converse with our boatmen as well as by the persistent banging from the bridge construction.
One point of criticism we have concerning the narrative’s overall composition is that Odagiri, at certain moments, applies the cut too much, subtly changing the pace for no reason whatsoever except for variety’s sake. Certain compositions would have been more powerful and even more communicative of the rhythm of the boatman’s daily life if they had less cuts and relied even more on temporally long shots.
They Say Nothing Stays The Same is an exquisitely shot meditation about the impact change has on society and subjectivity. Odagiri does not only investigate, in a slow-paced and crystal-clear manner, how societal change (i.e. the bridge) radically rewrites the social flow and even annihilates once useful societal positions, but also how the encounter with another subject enables one to reformulate one’s purpose in life. In short, a splendid debut by Odagiri Jo.
Psycho-note 1: The dream sequence in the narrative, a sequence we should call Koichi’s rampage, is nothing other than a wishfulfillment. His dream shows his desire, i.e. a desire to not have that bridge completed, as being in the process of being fulfilled.
Narra-note 1: The narrative also touches upon the fact that progress alters the ebb and flow of the lives of the subjects within the societal system as well as their subjectivity functioning within that system.