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A film to ponder
on 19 October 2013
Superficially, this is a detailed documentary charting the annual and perpetual toil of a Japanese couple and their two young boys on an island, as they strive to exist - it is little more than that - cultivating a rocky hillside, with no access to fresh water other than by making repeated journeys by boat to carry it in by the bucket-load from the near-bye mainland to irrigate their meagre crops.These tortuous journeys, and climbs made by each carefully balancing two buckets brimming with the precious liquid on a pole across their shoulders, form the main focus of a substantial proportion of the film, and certainly the film's most abiding image.
Yet this is no documentary: the family members are all actors, and the carefully, and often beautifully, composed shots and sequences in this handsome letterboxed black and white film reveal that there is little here that is not carefully considered and worked upon. The dramatic use of natural sounds and music, and the careful observation of significant and sometimes dramatic details also reveal this, as does the often careful placing of actors and camera to produce patterning and symmetry within the frame. Yet, despite twice here referring to the dramatic, the film as a whole is not conventionally so. With the exception of one tragedy, and its immediate aftermath, which it would be unfair to reveal, the film carries little plot or story, only observation of the daily, and annual, routine. It is even essentially without dialogue, as seem to be the islanders' lives: even at moments of extreme stress, and there are several, not a word is uttered.
It may be a great film - I am not sure - but if it is, it has nothing to do with story or characterisation, but rather with what it suggests and implies -- about the human condition, about relationships between the sexes, about the effects of extreme poverty and isolation even close beside civilisation and relative plenty, about the ageless nature of human suffering and endurance, perhaps even, in a post- nuclear Japan, about the effects on people of being reduced to a subsistence level where all that matters is survival, and there in no space for any form of interaction or activity which is not focused on that. Despite its seeming objectivity, the final effect of the film is almost mythic and symbolic (others have been reminded of the Greek myth of Sisyphus) and certainly intensely moving.