Dreaming of The Meridian Arc (2022) review [The Female Gaze – Japan Society]

Introduction

While Yoshiko Morishita devotes her time mostly at writing screenplays for drama series (e.g. Crying Out Love, in the Center of the World (2004), Tonbi (2013)), she sometimes accepts the task to write screenplays for cinematic products. Her latest work is the screenplay for Kenji Nakanishi’s Dreaming of The Meridian Arc, a film about Tadakata Ino and the completion of the first map of Japan.

Review

One day, at the Katori City hall, the quiet chatter of Kinoshita (Kenichi Matsuyama) and Ikemoto (Kiichi Nakai), both from the general affairs division, disturbs Kobayashi (Keiko Kitagawa), who is introducing the tourism division’s promotion plan for the city and their dream to establish a major Edo theme park to attract more tourists.

Interpreting their chatter as yet unvocalized disagreement with the proposed plan, she asks Ikemoto if he has a better plan. Feeling pressured by her, he answers if they cannot pitch a local figure, like Tadakata Ino who made first world-class map of the Japanese archipelago, for a historical drama series. The idea is quickly dismissed. Yet, when the governor orders the tourism division to make a pitch for dramatization, Kobayashi meets Ikemoto to give him the lead over the project.

Dreaming Of The Meridian Arc (2022) by Kenji Nakanishi

Dreaming of The Meridian Arc, a light-hearted film about the completion of the first coastal map of Japan, might not offer any deep thematical explorations, the narrative does reveal how the unfolding of time is fundamentally marked by loss – e.g. the loss of information by accident as well as on purpose. And while historians try to reconstruct and explain the gaps as much as possible as they write their ‘narrative’, those who aim to create a dramatical ‘narrative’ about a historical figure seek to fill the gaps with surges of dramatization and romanticization.

Yet, while both attempts, in their own way, elucidate some of what has nearly been lost or what has been wrongly inscribed in the text called history, they can never fully undo what fell prey to the hunger of time and the game of human manipulation. What is given to the present is but a pale and stitched version of the rich past.

The task that Ikemoto is given – i.e. to create a proposal within three years – is, of course, not without some obstacles and unexpected riddles. The major obstacle Ikemoto encounters is the radical refusal of the somewhat eccentric Kato Kozo (Isao Hashizume), the screenwriter the governor wants to use, to interact with him – his repetitive enunciation ‘Kato is dead’ expressing his wish to be left alone (Narra-note 1, Narra-note 2). And, even if he were to succeed in establishing a minimal bond with the eccentric screenwriter, it is highly unlikely that Kato Kozo will readily lend them his talent for the proposal of the drama.

Dreaming Of The Meridian Arc (2022) by Kenji Nakanishi

One of the riddles Ikemoto is confronted with during his research trip is the very reason why Tadataka finished such a map. If his main goal was to measure one degree of the planet’s latitude, why did he continue going on survey trips after successfully calculating it? Sadly, for Ikemoto, this is not the most puzzling riddle. As their research continues they stumble on the fact that Tadakata died three years (1818) before the completion of the map of Japan’s coastal area (1821). Yet, if Tadakata did not complete the map, who did? And can Ikemoto and his team save the attempt to utilize Tadakata as taiga-drama material?  

The sudden switch from the present day to the early years of the Bunsei era introduces the spectator slowly to what happened between Tadakata’s passing and the completion of the map and the public announcement of his passing (Theme-note 1). This shift introduces a few new riddles: why was his death kept silent for three years? Why did Takahashi Kageyasu (Kiichi Nakai), a shogunate astronomer, and Matakichi (Kenichi Matsuyama) agree to keep his death silent from the authorities? Did the authorities, like Saeki Munehisa, the commissioner of finance, not want to map from being finished?

Nakanishi brings the narrative alive with a balanced mixture of static and dynamic shots. While, in most cases, the compositional mixture is merely aimed at offering variety to the spectator, he does often take the time and effort to deliver a visually pleasant composed static shots. A fleeting moment of visual pleasure is not only due to a nice play with geometrical dimension, but also via a thoughtful use of depth-of-field.  

Dreaming Of The Meridian Arc (2022) by Kenji Nakanishi

What helps engaging the spectator with the Dreaming Of The Meridian Arc are the performances of Kenichi Matsuyama and Kiichi Nakai. Not only do they charm the spectator with their individual performance, but they also please the spectator with their good chemistry on screen. Due to this chemistry, they succeed in giving the light-hearted banter between their characters a Manzai-like flow that will not fail to put a smile on the spectator’s face. Moreover, as both actors understand the importance of comical timing, they succeed in delivering various light-hearted punchlines (Director-note 1). And as Kenichi Matsuyama and Kiichi Nakai among others bring characters alive both in the past and in the present, Nakanishi is able to exploit that to provide pleasant repetition of gag-like moments and offer surprising parallels.

While the more emotional moments in the narrative heavily rely on the musical accompaniment to touch the spectator – the structure of the narrative does not support these moments of emotionality well enough, Nakanishi does succeed in delivering one moment in Dreaming Of The Meridian Arc that will satisfy the spectator: the reveal of the finished map of Japan. This moment, and nothing else, is the highpoint of the narrative.

Dreaming Of The Meridian Arc is a pleasant narrative due to the chemistry between Kenichi Matsuyama and Kiichi Nakai and the satisfying delivery of a visual and narrative climax. While the film will not win any prizes, Yoshiko Morishita and Kenji Nakanishi do prove that interesting and engaging movie can be made about what some might consider as dull historical material.  

Notes

Narra-note 1: Only the act of repairing the trash-net near Kato Kozo’s home convinces him to invite Ikemoto inside his house and hear what he has to say. Why? Because, for him, Ikemoto’s act is driven by an unselfish kindness.

Narra-note 1: This obstacle is closely linked with a riddle concerning Kazo Kato as screenwriter: Why did he stop writing screenplays twenty years ago?   

Theme-note 1: Some might say that the interplay between Kato Kozo’s explanation of what happened in those three years and the visualisation that accompanies those words imply that history can be fully reconstructed. Yet, those spectator forget that the images of the past provide much more information that Kato Kozo’s signifiers can convey.    

Director-note 1: That the element of comical timing is effectively employed within the film is, of course, due to Nakanishi’s good directing. Yet, the fact that the punchlines have their intended effect is solely function of Kenichi Matsuyama and Kiichi Nakai’s performance and the chemistry they have together.

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