Note: this is our third installment of our ‘Cannes Stragglers’, reviews for films that we just couldn’t find the time to write while in Cannes, but ones that we wouldn’t want to keep from you.
Naomi Kawase’s Still the Water begins with shots of furious waves. The sea seems fierce and unforgiving, yet beautiful. These vivid images are followed by an extremely still, even peaceful view of the sea, perhaps in the aftermath of the storm. Considering how carefully constructed this most delicate film is, it is not surprising to note that it opens with a stark contrast. This, in fact, is a film full of such oppositions: the next shot, which depicts the killing of a goat explicitly but not without grace, features both the energy of life and the quietness of death. The story is concerned with both the young and the old, takes place both in the metropole and in the province, embraces both tradition and modernity. What is astonishing about Kawase’s depiction of these dualities is that she approaches all, as is always the case in her films, with an unexpected sense of serenity and understanding, refusing to create a melodrama or an easy tragedy out of all the conflicts in the setup.
The setup in question is very similar to older Kawase films. Perhaps the major theme in her work thus far has been the process of dealing with loss and Still the Water carries this exploration even further. In her first film Moe no Suzaku (1997), the central event is the loss of a father; Shara (2003) shows a family trying to deal with the loss of a child; and 2007’s Cannes Grand Prix-winning Mogari no Mori takes place in a house for the elderly, where the loss of loved ones is inevitable and frequent. One of the main characters in Still the Water is a shaman suffering from a terminal illness; therefore her forthcoming passing looms heavily over the entire film. She is not a mystical or spiritual figure, but rather a beloved mother and a wife. Her death is just as saddening as everyone else’s; it is a natural step in the endless cycle of life, but nonetheless devastating for those who know and love her.Certainly, there are tears shed for her; it is clear that she will be missed deeply. However, her last days are shown in an incredibly delicate, poetic manner through beautiful songs, traditional August dances, and peaceful domestic scenes instead of heightened emotions or overblown confrontations. More importantly, her acceptance of death is attributed not to her being a shaman or to some sort of extraordinary spiritual prowess she might possess, but only to her understanding of herself as a part of the immense nature. This sentiment is echoed in her daughter’s words, who explains that she loves swimming because she can feel how alive the ocean is when she is immersed in it. Obviously, seeing death as a return to nature does not make it any less painful or serious, but gives the sadness that always accompanies death a profound, noble character.
Kawase is careful to avoid turning her story into an empty celebration of provincial life or a polished piece of Japanese folklore. She keeps her focus on her characters and their thoughts even when the most idiosyncratic traditions are carried out. For example, we are not given a wide shot that clearly depicts the dances or the songs in the memorable scene of the shaman’s farewell. Instead, Kawase keeps showing us close-up shots of the mother and her daughter in this most difficult of times, emphasizing how deeply they love each other. Actually, the scene is very interesting from an anthropological perspective as it documents the customs of a vanishing way of life. But Kawase prefers to keep the human dimension at the front, prioritizing universal themes such as familial ties and generational conflicts over a mechanical ethnography of a specific region.
The shaman’s adolescent daughter is in love with a boy, who finds a dead body in the sea in the beginning of the film. While the relationship between the shaman and her daughter is built on love and tenderness, the boy has a few problems with his mother who struggles to connect with him while trying to make ends meet. As the tension between the mother and her son rises, the boy decides to go to Tokyo and visit his father, a plan to which his mother agrees. This brief section in Tokyo serves many functions at once: first, it shows that Kawase’s calm and poetic appreciation of life and its rhythms reaches out to the metropole as well. She finds as much grace in the chaos of Tokyo as she does in the stillness of Amami, a subtropical Japanese island. The close friendship between the father and his son is highly reminiscent of the mother-daughter pairing that precedes it, especially considering the short period of time they spend together in Tokyo has to come to a similar end. Furthermore, the wonderful night-time shots of Tokyo let us see that the characters are at ease with the fast pace of life in the city, just as most islanders were with the slowness in Amami.
The second function of the segment in Tokyo is that it reveals why the boy is disturbed to see a large tattoo on the body he finds in the sea. We get to see that his father owns a tattoo shop and has a very similar one on his back, implying that the boy perhaps sees a reflection of his father in the dead man. This is not only a sign of his fear of losing his father, both literally and emotionally, but it also hints that he does care a lot for his mother despite their many arguments (it is highly possible that the dead man is someone his mother was having an affair with). The final act of the film revolves around the disappearance of the boy’s mother. Therefore, the viewer is invited to compare the losses the two young protagonists face: the shaman’s passing and the mother’s vanishing. The former marks the end of a peaceful, loving relationship while the latter follows a rather tumultuous one. Yet the outcome remains quite similar. The inevitable separation of the parent from her child is always a profoundly moving process, an undeniably difficult but precious step for both parties involved.
It is perhaps misleading to focus on thematic content so much when writing about as ravishing a film as Still the Water. Bookended by two astonishing underwater sequences, the film marks Kawase’s most visually daring and impressive effort yet. Yutaka Yamazaki’s beautiful images seem wonderfully natural and carefully constructed at once. It is not difficult to see traces of Kawase’s career as a documentarian in Still the Water as she prefers real locations and natural light, but she manages to create a very cinematic, sensory experience through these elements. The location, Amami, provides many arresting, powerful landscapes for Kawase and she skillfully uses them in her splendid film, suitably shot in scope.
For admirers of Kawase’s work, Still the Water represents a new high point in an already distinguished career. The film fully embodies all the trademarks of this distinctive filmmaker’s work: a gentle, elegant take on the cycle of life; unexpected sensory pleasures found in the midst of nature; and a careful, functional fusion of universal themes and local traditions. It is perhaps the most accomplished film she has made yet, one in which many delicate pieces come together perfectly to create an exquisite, touching, and complex piece of cinematic poetry.