Film, above all else, is a formal medium. It’s about the way things are arranged, scenes, shots, items in the frame. It’s about capturing, limiting, arranging. In Still the Water, Naomi Kawase softly, delicately, turns the medium on its head. With this latest film, set on one of Japan’s many small Satsunan islands, she crafts a film that exists beyond the screen and the earthly realities of filmmaking. Kawase creates an enchanting, mystifying fable that drifts and winds and takes on a life of its own. She’s crafted a world which hums with the energy and life of the supernatural one.
Kawase’s career began with the international attention awarded to her personal documentary works, which focused on understanding her emotional memory, such as that between herself and the grandmother who raised her. The films obsessed over her past, her ability with expression and articulation, and the limits of collective memory. More recently Kawase has moved into fictitious filmmaking, and despite becoming something of a Cannes darling in the process, her works have remained elusive in British multiplexes.
This all changes with the release of Still the Water, a haunting, lyrical vision of lives lived on the edge of death, on the border with nature. A body with a giant carp tattoo across its back washes ashore on a sleepy Japanese island, where Kyoko and Kaito spend their teenage years exploring beaches, cycling around the island, and gradually, tentatively, falling for one another. Kyoko’s mother, an island Shaman, finds her grip on life weakening, and the community is readying itself for her departure. Meanwhile Kaito struggles to suppress his adolescent rage, navigating his tightly wound internal world of swirling feelings regarding his parents separation, and his mother’s various paramours. As typhoons sweep in, this potent brew of death, sex and secrets is whipped up into a satisfyingly emotional storm.
The film possesses a kind of magic that hangs in the long silences and unspoken thoughts that comprise much of the film. It’s slow, meandering pace captures the feeling of island life, of limited prospects, of the mourning for a way of existence that’s gradually being eroded by the creeping behemoth of the mainland’s energetic commercialism. The delicate storytelling allows us to feel the weight of every considered utterance, of every emotion, expressed or otherwise. Kawase’s wandering camera, seemingly blessed with the ability to constantly be stumbling across the perfect moment, finds fascinating compositions and visuals which capture the inextricable connection between the intermingled natural, human and spiritual worlds. The story’s human struggles become located, visually and narratively, within a broader vision for humanity, where we must explore, return to, and locate ourselves within the wide, fertile, unmapped lands of nature.
Kawase uses many familiar symbols in the film – the ocean for the ebb and flow of life, storms to express angry outbursts. And thus she evokes the sublime. Thankfully, however, these symbols never feel sloppily conceived or arbitrary. On the contrary, Still the Water feels like a lived, understood, deeply felt attempt to tune our heartbeats to the rhythms and cycles of nature. It’s a film of discovery for the director, as much as it is for its characters to the audience.
The performances are uniformly terrific. Underplayed and still, the simplest conversations hiss with a tension that lies just beneath the ostensibly calm island lifestyle. Jun Yoshinaga as Kyoko is a fascinating centre, preternaturally skilled in revealing everything to the camera with a tilt of the head a down-casting of the eyes, a vague, soft guttural exclamation. Scenes between her and her various maternal figures glow with a shared melancholic pride. Her performance is as graceful as any of the natural wonders that Kawase’s lens absorbs. Her father, played by Jun Murakami, brings a levity and sunniness to an otherwise surprisingly dark film, and newcomer Nijiro Murakami plays his painfully internal arc with suitable, palpable awkwardness.
Still the Water is ultimately a rich, wonderfully observed and painful call to preserve a proximity with nature. In the hearts of the island characters, Kawase finds a stillness and peace that pines for a proximity to nature. A second act visit to Tokyo by Kaito offers the possibility of a population more intensely enamoured with human artifice, whose only link with nature is the cycle of day and night, and even then, this is hardly adhered to. Clearly, Kawase is not one of them. The film, along with Kaito returns to the island, and so she returns her attention to the earth and its textures, its fruits, and finally, its ocean. And so she finds a meditative bliss that washes over her, and her audience.