SSIFF 2021 review: Haruhara-san’s Recorder (Kyoshi Sugita)

“Haruhara-san’s Recorder is a seemingly fleeting film at first sight, but Sugita’s little gem lingers as long as the memory of a loved one.”

“Gazing upon/Address Unknown stamp/The recorder/Played by Haruhara-san”

The above is a tanka, a form of Japanese poetry in which only 31 syllables are used. This particular one, written by Naoko Higashi, one of Japan’s leading tanka poets, inspired director Kyoshi Sugita to write the screenplay for his fourth film, Haruhara-san’s Recorder, intrigued as he was by the inherent mystery that derives from the structure of such poems. The tanka leaves plenty of room to let the imagination roam free about who the returned letter was sent to, who owns the recorder, and who Haruhara-san is. Another inspiration for Sugita was actress Chika Araki, who came to the premiere of Sugita’s previous film Listen to Light while still recovering from an intense medical procedure, a dedication he admired so much he wanted them to do a film together.

Life takes its course, however, and sometimes that course is dramatically corrected. After shooting only one scene of the film, as fate would have it the supposed last one, the world was taken into the grip of this terrible virus that has been plaguing us for the past year and a half. Unavailability of certain locations forced Sugita into a ‘back to the drawing board’ situation, and suddenly the closing scene became the opening one. A borrowed café and an offered apartment room later, Sugita’s story of loss and grief and our support systems that help us through it was reframed. What remained was the mystery of Naoko Higashi’s poem.

Sachi (Araki) has just lost her partner, who committed suicide while they were living together. Struck by this horrible loss, Sachi drastically upheaves her life: she quits her job as curator of an art museum and starts to work at a café. A regular recommends to her an apartment room that is on offer because its current tenant is leaving Tokyo for his birthplace, a ‘place full of myth’, as he puts it. Despite the change of scenery, both professionally and in her private life, Sachi still feels bereft by the absence of her partner, an empty hole where life used to be. Over time though, through the support of her aunt and uncle, and of friends, colleagues, and others, Sachi’s wounds start to heal.

There is, understandably, a tinge of sadness that runs through Haruhara-san’s Recorder, though decidedly in its quieter moments. The people around Sachi cheer her up to a certain extent, and nudge her towards a new life. Yet there are subtle reminders that Sachi is only slowly adjusting to this new life, and still has not completely made peace with the old one and the grief that came from it. She always leaves the door of her apartment open, as if to say that her partner can walk in at any time. She sleeps a lot, physically and emotionally tired from her loss. Outwardly she is friendly and to an extent cheerful and happy, but in part that is just cover.

There are other repeating patterns, such as people taking pictures of her with their mobile phones, as if to preserve a memory. A flute returns from time to time, left behind by the previous tenant, its piercing tones awakening Sachi from her misery. And cakes, lots of cakes. They don’t really designate anything (a sweeter life ahead, perhaps?), but they do make the viewer crave sugary stuff.

There is a lingering tenderness in Haruhara-san’s Recorder that reminds one of some of the gentler works of compatriot Hirokazu Kore-eda in its contemplative nature and eschewing of overt melodrama. Aesthetically though this digitally shot film is more in line with the recent work of Hong Sang-soo, not in the least because COVID forced Sugita and his crew into a form of guerrilla filmmaking. As such, Haruhara-san’s Recorder is a visually simple film without much ado, but it fits the film’s storyline and its choice to focus on emotional depth. Much of this thus falls on Araki, hampered at times by facemasks as she is, and she delivers a truly bittersweet performance as a woman trying to move on with her life but still emotionally chained to the past. Haruhara-san’s Recorder is a seemingly fleeting film at first sight, but Sugita’s little gem lingers as long as the memory of a loved one.