Stone Steps (2022) review [JFFH 2022]

Introduction

Doing a crowd-funding in an attempt to realize a project is, in many cases, a risk. Yet, without taking risks nothing can be gained. Koichi Kuwata, a beautician by day, took such risk and offered up his Mondays for two years to create an indie narrative about his beloved Kojima.   

Review

One day, Natsuki Kimura (Kanna Fukui) and her friends attack Tsutomu Katayama (Akitoshi Otaki), a man doing henro (pilgrimage), on the beach (Language-note 1). Later that day, Natsuki is surprised to encounter the very man they attacked at her grandmother’s house. Natsuki’s grandmother (Satono Mori), who treated him for his injuries and dried his clothes, is happy to learn that the man is doing his pilgrimage in Kojima in Okayama prefecture instead of the Shikoku area. Her grandmother orders Natsuki to guide him to the next temple, the tensyou-ji temple, while doing an errand for her.

Stone Steps (2022) by Koichi Kawata

Stone Steps is a narrative that touches upon the problem of depopulation that marks many rural areas in Japan and the growing impulse to try and revitalize those areas and underlines the importance of having dreams and letting one’s dreams guide once’s actions and trajectory.  

Kuwata highlights that, in contrast to Tamashiya, Chayamachi and Kurashiki, the area of Kojima is marked by a population decline. He furthermore implies that what underpins such decline is the very confrontation between economical struggles (i.e. decreasing number of jobs and the aging of the population within this areas) and the position of the subject. Bigger cities (e.g. Okayama) attract younger people either because they promise the subject the encounter with his own dream/desire or because these places seemingly allow those, who have desires and dreams, to realize their fantasized future (General-note 1).  

Stone Steps (2022) by Koichi Kawata

Stone Steps is structured around two relationships marked by a generational difference – i.e. Natsuki and Tsutomu and Natsuki and her mother Midori Kimura (Chie Tajima). The first relationship allows Kuwata to touch upon the beauty (of historical tradition) that remains hidden in plain sight and explore the dynamic of such blindness. The surprise and enthusiasm of Tsutomu, expressed when seeing a cute statue, discovering a forgotten remnant of the past, or encountering a remarkable landscape, invites Natsuki to view her environment in a different way. One reason young people  remain blind to the beauty that surrounds them is, as Stone Steps implies, because they are dazzled by the promise that the city holds.

Yet, in Natsuki’s case, the second relationship, a relationship of intergenerational conflict, explains her blindness to the beauty of her hometown. While Natsuki desires to become a singer, her mother insists that she, as only daughter of the Kimura family, has to take over the hospital in the future (Narra-note 1). Her dream to etch out her own subjective path is radically complicated by the motherly command to inscribe herself into the traditional beliefs surrounding familial functioning. Natsuki’s blindness to the beauty of tradition and her decision to hang out with rebellious girls can, in this sense, be read as an acting-out that expresses her refusal of the m(Other)’s demand and her subjective struggle.  

Stone Steps (2022) by Koichi Kawata

Natsuki eventually decides to join Tsutomu on his pilgrimage (Narra-note 2). Why does she joins this strange man on his pilgrimage? Is it because he resembles her late father or because she identifies with the fact that he is searching? And how will this joined pilgrimage with Tsutomu affect Natsuki? Can her interactions with him on her own impromptu pilgrimage instigate the kind of subjective shift she is looking for? And, turning to Tsutomu, what is his reason for doing the Henro? Does he have a dream? Can he, if he has a dream, still find a way to realize his dream and attain some form of happiness?

The composition of Stone Steps – a balanced mix of static and dynamic moments, offers beautiful shots of scenery, revealing not only the hidden beauty of the Kojima area and the stain of industrialization on natural landscapes, but also how man-made structures (e.g. the Seto Ohashi Bridge) fluidly blend with the surrounding nature (e.g. Seto-inland sea, forested hills, …etc.) aw well as the elegance of the Buddhist temples preserving a certain religious but also architectural and artistic tradition. Kuwata’s composition does have some unnecessary shot-transitions – i.e. certain cross fades, and some strange cuts. Luckily, these uncommon decorations do not complicate the pleasant flow of the composition or the pleasure of the spectator.

Stone Steps (2022) by Koichi Kawata

The pleasant musical accompaniment that opens the narrative is effective in highlighting that, despite touching upon some serious problems – be it social, subjective, or medical, the overall feel of the narrative will be light-hearted and positive. The occurrence of light-hearted moments within the narrative are not only effective in putting a smile on the spectator’s face, but also allows Kuwata to deliver his message about finding a dream to chase in an uplifting manner.

Stone Steps is a great indie narrative that elegantly introduces Kojima, a place of hidden beauty off the beaten path, to the spectator, and smartly utilizes the conflict between the traditional Other and the young-subject-that-dreams to highlight the need for the parental and the traditional Other to aid the subject to embark on the path of his own desire.   

Notes

General-note 1: Kuwata also underlines the contemporary problem of Japanese youth not finding a dream or a desire. The importance of having a dream is, in a certain sense, in decline.

Language-note 1: The standard Japanese word for a pilgrimage is junrei, but around the shikoku area, it is called henro.

Narra-note 1: Later in the narrative, it is elegantly revealed that Natsuki’s desire is the desire of the Other, the desire she perceived her late father had for her.

Narra-note 2: When Natsuki asks why he does the pilgrimage, he answers that is beneficial because we can along with Kukai/Koubou-taishi. Kukai or Koubou-taishi is one of the best-known and most-beloved Buddhist saints in Japan and the founder of the Shingon (“True Word”) school of Buddhism.

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