Despite making such engaging narratives like Kamome Diner (2006), Glasses (2007), and Close-Knit (2017), Naoko Ogigami remains one of the most underrated female director within Japan. Maybe her latest film, a narrative based on her own novel Kawapperi Mukolitta (2019) can finally seal her international break-through.
After being released from prison, Takeshi Yamada (Kenichi Matsuyama) starts working at Sawada Fishery products, a company well-known for squid Shiokara [salty fermented squid]. Much to the surprise of his boss Sawada (Naoto Ogata), Yamada has no problem with the monotonous work of cleaning the squids.
With the help of his boss, Yamada starts living can the old and rundown Mokulitta apartments, run by landlord Minami Nakajima (Hikari Mitsushima) (General-note 1). One day, his neighbour Kozo Shimada (Tsuyoshi Muro) knocks at his door. He promptly asks if he can use the bath. Startled by the stranger’s directness, his speech fails him and causes him to slam the door shut.
Not much later, Yamada learns that his estranged father has died. They ask him to accept his remains, but this demand instigates a surge of nausea, prompting him to hang up abruptly.
Riverside Mukolitta is a summery narrative that explores, with elegance and sanguinity, the interlaced dimensions of life and death. By holding these two signifiers in one’s mind, one quickly feels the thematical rhythm of Ogigami’s narrative, the thematical wave that touches upon death (e.g. Yamada’s squid) or life (e.g. Shimada’s vegetables) (Narra-note 1). In accordance with the thematical flow, Riverside Mukolitta sketches out, in a very touching way, the different ways subjects invent to (try to) inscribe their loss symbolically within one’s subject and how certain subjects contemplate to radically inscribe themselves as absence within the social field – i.e. to commit suicide.
Yet, as the narrative unfolds, it becomes increasingly clear that what Ogigami celebrates is nothing other than the fact that what breathes life into the subject is his social bonds. Without social bonds, the body is animated by a subject that is socially and symbolically dead. Without such bonds, the subject is merely a piece of death littered around the social field.
This trajectory from social death to being subjectively alive is undertaken by Yamada. His withdrawn presence within the social field is, to put it somewhat crudely, a sign of his identification with being nothing more than deceased litter. Yamada refuses to fully inscribe himself within the social field – a quantum of guilt and self-condemnation inhibits him. By keeping his signifiers within interactions with the other to a bare minimum, he does not merely install a distance between him and the Other, but creates a space that allows him to remain socially deceased and avoid the liveliness that marks the surrounding Other.
It is thus not difficult to realize why the monotonous job of cleaning squid fits him so well. Rather than Yamada truly liking this menial work, the structure of his work – i.e. clean in silence – allows him to assume a minimal position within the social field without having to feel alive or feel that life has any meaning.
Luckily, the self-proclaimed minimalist Kozo Shimada is not hindered by Yamada’s social inhibition and reluctance to interact (Narra-note 2). It is, in fact, his insistence, as driven by his wish to take bath at Yamada’s apartment or to have him help in his vegetable garden, that forces Yamada to lay down his defences and engage in conversation with him. In fact, Shimada forces Yamada to establish a social bond with him, hereby offering him a relational support that does not only enable him to feel more at ease within his new environment but also invites him to become socially alive and offer the other a glance at his subjectivity (Narra-note 3, Narra-note 4).
All other characters within Riverside Mukolitta are, in one way or another, marked by the presence of death – be it physical or social. Gan-chan (Daisuke Kuroda), a monk from a local temple, is struggling because not many people ask him to do funerals. Kenichi Mizoguchi (Hidetaka Yoshioka) who, together with his son Yoichi (-), goes door to door to sell gravestones, indirectly confronting people with their own transient nature. Yet, the punchline of his son – we put our heart into our service – always causes people to slam the door shut.
Minami, for that matter, is marked by her beloved husband’s untimely death. Strange as it may be, the impact of his death is expressed by Mimami through her disgust of pregnant women – big bellies give rise to a violent urge in her. It is thus not simply the animal nature of the process of bringing new life onto this world that is problematic for her. The disgust for the blossoming of life functions as a kind of reaction formation, a symptom that covers up the ongoing pain associated with her loss. Yet, how is Kozo Shimada marked by the presence of death?
The composition of Riverside Mukolitta stands out due to its peaceful rhythm – a rhythm created by elegantly concatenating fixed and fluid dynamic moments – and its visual pleasure. Ogigami’s use of depth-of-field allows her to add a subtle softness to her visuals that heightens the visual pleasure of many of her shots. Moreover, this softness helps elevating some of the shot-compositions by making them more compositionally interesting. Yet, even without such decorations, Ogigami visually pleases the spectator with many delightful shot-compositions.
The sudden shifts to more shaky framing, shifts often indicated by subtle disturbing sound, are used effectively by Ogigami to indicate that something – an act, a silence, or a signifier – troubles Yamada or another character as a subject. It is, as a matter of fact, by including such moments that the director succeeds in evoking something of Yamada’s emotional rhythm.
The colour-design of Riverside Mokulitta is exquisite. It is not simply the naturalness of the colours that visually pleases the spectator, but the elegant way Ogigami exploits the interplay between colours. By being attentive to colour-gradations and contrasts, Ogigama succeeds in stuffing her composition with moments where the mundane fabric attains a subtle poetic flavour.
Riverside Mukolitta might explore a rather common theme within Japanese cinema – the importance of social bonds to be feel alive, Ogigami succeeds in elevating her film by elegantly interweaving the dimensions of death and life within her narrative fabric, add a subtle visual elegance to her visuals, and by being able to rely on her talented cast to breathe life into Riverside Mukolitta’s emotional flow. The result is a highly touching narrative about re-finding social life. Highly recommended.
General-note 1: Mukolitta is a unit of time in Buddhist writing, equivalent of 1/30th of a day (2880 seconds or 48 minutes).
Narra-note 1: In scenes of eating, the dimensions of death and life are often present at the same time. The dead squid, for instance, supports the life of human beings – of course their physical but more importantly their social life. The same thing is true for the raw sukiyaki beef.
In other words, the edible remains of an animal supports the circling of the signifier between subjects, allowing each to extract some social pleasure and enabling each to establish or strengthen their bonds with each other.
The lively strength of nature, as evoked by earthquakes and typhoons, does not echo death as such, but subtly underlines the transient and frail nature of a human body.
Narra-note 2: Later in the narrative, it is subtle implied that Shimada’s insistence of forcing himself into the personal space of the other is nothing other than an attempt to knit himself within a social structure that can support his desire to keep on living.
Narra-note 3: It is this initial bond with Shimada that allows Yamada to slowly interact with the other residents.
Narra-note 4: What is thus important in Yamada’s struggle of what to do with his father’s remains is the fact that this struggle allows him to be confronted with his father’s social death, with the fact that his father had no one to invite him back into the social field.