Shaman’s Daughter (2022) review [JFFH 2022]

Introduction

Every year, a bunch of young Japanese people try to craft their first-feature film and impress local and, if possible, international audiences. One of these youths this year is Yusuke Isaka. Can his genre-blending feature film debut impress us?  

Review

The sudden death of his beloved Sayuri (Akari Sato) shocks pizza-delivery guy Kengo Tojo (Kohei Nagano) to the core. Yet, despite this tragic event, life goes on. Not much later, while delivering pizza, he encounters Umika Akaboshi (Nagisa Kihara), a strange high school student.

After expresses some interest in the strange posters hanging on the house, Umika suddenly pulls him into the house to introduce him to her father (Makoto Tezuka), who is a shaman. He offers him a taste of his abilities, yet his before his show can convince Kengo, he runs away. At night, after arriving home, he finds a spectral Sayuri sitting on his bed.   

Shaman's Daughter (2021) by Yusuke Isaka

Shaman’s Daughter is a light-hearted genre mish-mash full of heart-warming instances of romance, surges of bloody violence, and moments of nail-biting tension. Isaka utilizes the impact of losing a loved one as well as the difficulty for the subject to accept his loss to deliver a narrative that plays with the fact that subjects rather drown themselves in empty speech and phantasmatic pleasure than narrativize (or work-through) their own loss.  

This dynamic is, first, explored via the character of Kengo. Isaka beautifully shows that the radical absence of Sayuri does not simply strengthen Kengo’s memories of her, but gives the materiality of the city the very strength to call forth those memories. The city has, in other words, transformed in a fabric of signs that signal her radical absence. Yet, the confrontation with her radical absence is only caused by being subjectively caught within the contrast between the cold emptiness of the city and the romantic warmth that marks his phantasmatic memories.

Shaman's Daughter (2021) by Yusuke Isaka

Of course, the sudden spectral presence of Sayuri in his apartment subdues the city as the site of signs of loss and ‘transforms’ his subjective position. Yet, it should be evident that Kengo is conflicted by her sudden presence. While on the one hand, the ability to savour his love’s voice (symbolic) and to enjoy the presence of his love as image (imaginary) impacts his subjective position in a positive manner – e.g. he is finally able to sleep, the radical lack of her bodily support echoes to him that her presence is etched on a radical absence from the mundane physical world (real). Yet, the continued presence of her sweet voice and her beautiful image soon bans this conflict to the deep recesses of his mind (Narra-note 1). For the spectator, a few questions remains: Why can’t Sayuri move on from this world? What will allow her to become enlightened? How will her continued ghostly presence impact Kengo’s subject? And how will meeting Kengo, once again, impact her as ghostly presence? Can Kengo ultimately find a way to accept her death and help her reach enlightenment or will he, so selfishly attached to his love for her, succumb to her enduring youthful presence?

Not long after he is reunited with his deceased beloved, Umika, beautifully portrayed by Nagisa Kihara, asks for his friendship and even expresses her romantic interest in him. The reason why she falls in love with Kengo is closely linked to the reason why she fails to make friends at high school. Umika has, in short, no friends because she radically refuses to join the empty chitter-chatter from which the others derive a sliver of pleasure. In fact, the signifiers she utters radically complicates the imaginary harmony of the gossiping voices. With Kengo, there is no need to indulge in such chitter-chatter – she can be herself.

Shaman's Daughter (2021) by Yusuke Isaka

Due to this unexpected surge of romantic feelings, the spectator is confronted with a new set of questions: Will Umika’s feelings for Kengo seduce her to break, without his approval, the reunion of him and his ghostly girlfriend or will she allow him to remain drunk on living a past without any future? And, what will happen to him, as subject, if Kengo loses his beloved once again?

Umika’s strangeness, moreover, does not stop Kana (Momoka Kurakami), who is emotionally burdened by her soon-to-die mother, her good-for-nothing father, and her masturbating brother, to approach her and witness her practicing her batting skills with a dog on the school’s roof. Can Umika, due to this encounter, make a second friend? How will the chance Kana receive to make her silenced subjectivity beyond the empty chitter-chatter impact her?

The composition ofShaman’s Daughteris mainly framed with a concatenation of fixed shots. Isaka’s reliance on static framing allows him to craft many shot-compositions that, by elegantly utilizing the geometrical dimension (e.g. of interiors), visually please the spectator. But that’s not all. The static nature of his composition also allows him to thoughtfully play with the lighting-design (and colour-contrasts) to subtly evoke the presence of the otherworldly or to underline the shift in emotional tone (Music-note 1).     

Shaman's Daughter (2021) by Yusuke Isaka

Yet, there are, besides sudden dynamic moments within the composition, also sequences that are full of spatial and tracking dynamic shots. These dynamic bursts are collage-like moments that have not other purpose than to evoke the subjective state of Kengo – be it lost due to Sayuri’s death or happy due to her ghostly presence, to echo Umika’s emotional state, e.g. when faced with the threats of her father or when going out with her newly made friend, or to heighten the tension of certain sequences.  

The structure of the narrative is quite decent, but suffers from a bit too much bloat. With a more refined editing, the unnecessary moments in the narrative would have been cut-out and the flow of the narrative would have more effective in keeping the spectator engaged. Isaka’s failure to trim the narrative in the second half and maintain its engaging flow causes Shaman’s Daughter to lose much of the steam that propelled it so excitedly forward in the first half and undercuts the effect of the many revelations on the spectator in the second half (Cine-note 1).

Shaman’s daughter succeeds in delivering a genre mish-mash – a cocktail of light-hearted comedy, family drama, bloody thriller, and ghostly romance – that is not only pleasant but offers the spectator a rich emotional fabric to savour. Yet, Isaka’s narrative is held back by his failure to control the rhythm of his narrative. The second half of the narrative is too long for its own good – a youthful mistake – and this ultimately undercuts the impact of the many emotionally powerful moments on the spectator.   

Notes

Narra-note 1: The bodily absence of Sayuri makes any kind of sexual act to be akin to masturbating to a pornographic image.

Music-note 1: Yet, the sudden appearance of the ghostly dimension is not simply highlighted with a subtle play of lightning. In most cases, the emergence of the ghostly is also signalled with an eerie musical decoration. A shift in emotional tone is similarly decorated with some kind of music.

Sound-note 1: The low-budget nature of the narrative is felt most in the sound-design, yet the inconsistencies at the level of the sound do not derail the narrative at all. 

Cine-note 1: It is quite difficult for a director so intensely engaged with his own narrative to find a right balance between telling a narrative and create a visual flow. We hope that Isaka, by placing himself in the place of the spectator, can find a better balance in the future.  

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