Part of the deal as an auteurist is that we will follow the director from film to film, keeping an open mind The relationship is the point. The director reaches out to us, and we hope to reach back and embrace their new film. Will it make us understand something new? Will it deepen a certain aspect of their art? Will it set off in new directions? Will it disappoint us? Each film is a new encounter. And so we take out our notebooks and begin to revise our notes, our ideas.
There is currently a video on Youtube titled “Naoko Ogigami: Japan’s Comfiest Filmmaker.” It’s around 25 minutes long and goes in-depth into Ogigami’s career and background, combing through her interviews to provide insight into her process and her films. It’s worth watching. But this title of “Japan’s Comfiest Filmmaker” cannot be ignored. At first blush, it is understandable. But it’s also somewhat insidious. Ogigami’s films are undeniably gentle and whimsical. Their surfaces are placid and calm. More than anything else, her cinema is welcoming. But this only describes her cinema up to a point. And it doesn’t quite work to describe the achievement of her latest films, 2017’s Close-Knit and 2021’s Riverside Mukolitta. In these two films, she is pushing her art further and further – her films will always be gentle and inviting, but now these same surfaces are used to invite you to wade into darker and darker undercurrents.
How do you live?
Riverside Mukolitta is a work steeped in death. All the major characters are touched by it, ruined by it. But Ogigami does not film dourly She does not film to wallow in her character’s misery. Her cinema provides an alternative. Kenichi Matsuyama plays Yamada, a young man recently released from prison. He finds a job slicing up squid at a small factory; repetitive work that his boss says has driven people to quit after a day or two. But Yamada has nowhere else to be, nothing else to do. His boss helps him find a room at an old apartment building where he soon meets his colorful neighbors.
Part of Ogigami’s universe will always be, on some level, filled with quirkiness and whimsy. But whereas in previous films, like Kamome Diner, this revealed itself as a way to celebrate the oddity of all its characters, in Riverside Mukolitta, tries to marry the oddball nature of her characters to their desperate struggle to find a way to live. Ogigami always makes community pictures. So Yamada’s neighbor invites himself into his apartment, over and over, first to use his bath, and then to eat his food – anything to stave off the loneliness. Another of Yamada’s neighbors takes his young son to sell tombstones door to door, both of them wearing identical suits, which at first registers like a too-cute joke, but soon makes sense as another aspect of the film’s relationship to death. Once Yamada is able to afford some food and finds a fan in the garbage heap, life begins to be somewhat bearable.
How is community built? How is it formed? Ogigami’s cinema is built of small gestures, mundane domestic rituals. Characters share meals with each other, they help tend to each other’s gardens, they walk to the local temple to cool down. One of the film’s funniest scenes occurs as more and more neighbors invite themselves to a meal, popping up by the door, as they prepare their sukiyaki. Perhaps they complain, but deep down it is nice to have company. Each interaction builds on the last, and soon an unmistakable fond is formed, impossible to ignore.
All of Ogigami’s films are essentially manuals on how to go about life. Her early films such as Kamome Diner and Glasses built up small little communities, they preach tolerance, inclusiveness, relaxation, rest. In Rent-a-cat, the main character lets people rent her cats so they can find healing and comfort. Perhaps, on some level, they deal with issues of self-care. But in her last two films, she has left behind these characters who don’t have too many conflicts to show characters who genuinely struggle through life. Ogigami’s search in how to deal with these characters lends the films a lot of their interest. How do you live becomes how do you film.
Eat your bones
When writing about Ogigami’s Close-Knit, I wrote that the camera was always at right distance, every time. Due to the nature of the film’s subject, she had to confront intolerance and at points approached melodrama. But in Mukolitta, her staging is a little unclear. The film registers as a reformulation of her approach to character, to drama. Everything is more internal, a little more abstract. Sometimes she falls back to her wide shots, letting the action play out from a distance. But then the camera moves in for a medium shot, hand-held for some reason, and the staging feels a little haphazard, like it has not been blocked out all the way, which is not something I would’ve ever felt about Ogigami’s cinema before.
The question becomes how to integrate death into her cinema, how to represent it. Perhaps adapting her own novel has forced her to dig deeper into metaphor. Giving images to her words is already something difficult, but to make them feel alive, new… All the characters are surrounded by death. Early on, Yamada is told that his father has died, all alone, in a nearby apartment. He goes to pick up his remains and is told that his father’s Adam’s apple survived cremation intact. But now what does he do with these remains? What kind of relationship does he hope to have with his father now that he’s dead? His neighbor reveals that he had a son and then lost him. He then asks him to forget he said that. His landlord, Hikari Matsushima, lost her husband a few years ago. He sees a ghost, tending to the garden, and everyone agrees that, yes, that was the old lady who used to live at the apartments.
Death is not abstract. Ogigami makes the experience of it literal. The death of a body is not the end. The living must deal with what remains, a body, bones. For Matsushima’s landlord, she visits the grave of her husband, buried by a tree. While on the way back, the taxi driver remarks that he took the remains of his wife, ground them up, and put them in a firework, shooting her up in the sky. And this leads to the most striking sequence of the film, and Ogigami’s cinema so far. Matsushima, alone in her room, takes out the remains of her husband, proceeds to nibble at the bones, take a few hesitant bites, and then uses it to fondle herself. Ogigami has never quite filmed something like this. She’s not really a director that places a premium on sensuality. But in here she takes a fairly big swing, connecting the desire to commune spiritually with the dead to a somewhat erotic exploration, hesitant, awkward, a moment that’s mystifying, even to the character.
Watching Riverside Mukolitta, we witness a director test the boundaries of what her cinema will allow. Ogigami makes hangout films, she does not film complex scenarios. So she must look for new images and often this can a beautiful and awkward struggle. She does not forget her quirky touches, such as that garbage dump in between the train tracks, where the characters congregate. It’s here where that little boy in the suit fiddles with a melodica while Yamada watches, or where he gathers all the rotary phones he can find while he waits for a call from an alien. It’s precious, it’s twee. But this is important to understand, it is not naïve. The image of the alien in the sky in a lesser film would be joyful. Ogigami immediately complicates it but showing by showing the despair it triggers.
Part of the evolution in Ogigami’s cinema has necessitated an engagement with melodrama. At first, her films resisted outbursts of emotion. But now her films seem to demand it. Part of the journey of the film is from Matsuyama’s early reticence to show any display of emotion to the overwhelming breakdown at film’s end. Ogigami’s films are ultimately healing. Her gaze seeks to shelter and protect her characters. She films her characters to heal them. But the process has become more complicated, more fraught. As Yamada’s tears fall and mix with his father’s bones, Ogigami makes clear that both are necessary to move forward. The final images perfectly express this sentiment. Death is now all around them, in the air, in their room, in their clothes. But also the joy of being able to move forward, to smile, to live another day. In this new encounter with Ogigami’s cinema, we register the joy of seeing the boundaries of her cinema, reaching its limits, and then pushing forward with new images and new approaches.
Riverside Mukolitta is playing at the Vancouver International Film Festival