“When something new comes along, the old things go. That’s how it is.” A sober conclusion, and a truth as hard as a rock. In our continuous progress of civilization old ways are left by the wayside in favor of convenience. New inventions make our lives easier, faster, and most people would say better. But does it make us happier and more appreciative of life? What do these changes mean for culture and traditions, as our lives become more focused on the individual, and are these concepts becoming obsolete and stale? The lines at the beginning of this review are spoken by a man, the central character in Joe Odagiri’s They Say Nothing Stays the Same, who knows that as society leaps and bounds forward he will be left behind. The effect that has on this one man, a stand-in for ‘the older generation’ (any older generation ever, really), is the subject of this languorous and melancholic study of the casualties of modernity and how we might lose something precious.
Toichi is a boatman on a river in what can roughly be dated as the early 20th century. Since time immemorial he has been ferrying villagers to and from a town on the other riverbank. But to quote Dylan, the times they are a changin’. A short distance upriver a bridge is being built, and once it’s finished there will be no more need for a ferryman. Some of his younger passengers already treat him as a relic, united in derision of Toichi’s simple life. The only person who treats him with more than cursory respect is Genzo, a young man who lives close by. One day, Toichi’s boat bumps into the body of a mysterious young girl who he takes in and nurtures back to health. It is unclear who she is and how she got there, but Toichi gives her a place to stay, unaware that this will cause big changes in his life.
Joe Odagiri is mainly known as an actor, having worked with Asian heavyweights such as Kiyoshi Kurosawa, Kim Ki-duk, and Hirokazu Kore-eda. For his first feature-length film he manages to escape that pitfall of many actors-turned-directors, a film that focuses on the acting. They Say Nothing Stays the Same is a lamenting rumination on what we lose as we move forward, in which the acting by the small central cast comes second, even though it is by no means insignificant (Akira Emoto as Toichi in particular striking almost every note perfectly). There is a tenderness to the film that is affecting for those who realize what getting older means, and it is this understanding that is the most worthwhile aspect of Odagiri’s work here.
Not that the film is without flaws. For one, the film is too long for the simple message it wants to convey, however well conceived the portrayal of that message is. At times it starts to feel repetitive, and this lays bare the biggest problem: Odagiri lacks confidence in his own abilities. To say that the film is not subtle in its messaging would be an understatement, as it is literally spelled out several times. Oddly, he doesn’t trust his actors here, especially the older ones who seem perfectly able to convey a lot with just one rueful look or wistful gesture. Odagiri also penned the screenplay, but could perhaps have benefited from another, better writer.
Flaws aside, They Say Nothing Stays the Same stands as a strong, pensive debut. Christopher Doyle’s impeccable, classical lensing fits thematically, with its lack of flash, giving the film a suitable timeless aura. Getting older and behind the times is a point we will all reach in life sooner or later, a timeless idea. The world must move forward, but what do we leave behind? Odagiri, in his early forties, seems to have reached that point and has crafted a sad lament for a loss of culture and tradition and the hunger for more than is sufficient. They Say Nothing Stays the Same is a promising debut that is perhaps too subdued to make a dent on the festival circuit, but shows that Odagiri has talent as a director, even if perhaps less so as a writer.