a page of madness

film writing by nicholas vroman

Nanayomachi / 七夜待

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Nara-based film director Naomi Kawase made a quite a splash on the international film scene last year when her film, The Mourning Forest, won the Grand Prix at Cannes. The story of a caregiver and her testy relationship with an Alzeiheimer’s stricken man – both coming to terms with family and loss was a marvel of intense emotion, careful structure and quiet intensity. A far cry from the usual wall-to-wall action blockbusters, feature-length advertisement for Disney rides, ham-fisted weepies and infantile comedies that usually command the big screens around Japan, The Mourning Forest stood out by its intelligence and its very real emotion. A simple chamber piece, with brilliant direction of non-actors, it seemingly came out of the blue.

Kawase, though, has been building a body of work since the early 90s, primarily with a series of documentaries turning the camera on herself and her family. Her most recent, Tarachime, in which she documents in disconcerting detail, her relationship with her grandmother and the birth of her child, received the Special Prize at the Yamagata International Documentary Film Festival last year.  She’s simultaneously been making her mark with fiction films. She was feted at Cannes in 1996 with the Camera D’Or for her debut feature film Suzaku.

Her new feature – her 5thNanayomachi premieres throughout Japan on November 1. Like The Mourning Forest, Nanayomachi’s tale is built around a spiritual and emotional journey. The story follows a young 29-year-old woman, Saiko who has just arrived in Thailand. Why she’s there is unexplained. A vacation? Running away? It’s left up to the viewer.

Escaping from a suspect cab ride, she runs into the woods – straight into the arms of French heartthrob, Colin Gregoire, who as the character, Greg, takes her to where he lives and studies – a small school of traditional Thai massage. Greg, the master masseuse Amari, her son and an old maid are the only people living in this enchanting place in the heart of the forest. Even the strange taxi driver, who happens to be the Amari’s brother, reappears. Together they all form an odd pseudo family. They do not understand each other’s languages – Thai, French, English and Japanese – but through the touch of Thai massage, they communicate nonetheless.  Mystical and physical happenings, random meetings – all build to revelations for all involved. What could have easily become a shallow new age screed carries a subtle profundity.

Saiko is brilliantly played by Kyoko Hasegawa. She made her name in the popular TV drama, Bokudake no Madonna (My Only Madonna), and through smart casting choices is showing her chops a Japanese star to watch. Like Mike Leigh, Kawase’s method of working with actors (and non-actors alike) is not to reveal events, motivations, or even plot. Viewers share the very same situations, feelings and moments that the actors themselves discovered. And Hasegawa is particularly adept in working with this technique.  Nanayomachi highlights not only actors, but also director Kawase at top form.

Originally published in Japanzine, November 2008

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Written by Nicholas Vroman

November 1, 2008 at 1:34 am

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