In the cozy land of mid-nineties Japan, the rice paper sliding doors are never locked, your local pub owner knows everyone’s name, neighbors step out of their houses synchronously waving and gossiping in the early morning sun. Riding around on her bike Yumiko knows everyone in her neighborhood, all is right and her husband is the picture of humble wit. Her best friend. Child hood sweethearts really.
Hirokazu Kore-eda’s debut film indoctrinates the viewer to a golden-misted hue, his favorite in a world where things are packaged up nice and neatly until they aren’t, until pitch perfect facades crumble into that darkened reality he creates, in particular for Yumiko. Right now things are rosy, in a care-free we-have-no-money-but-nothing-matters-but-our-love-anyway type of feel. They have a baby and it is a cozy time with knitting needles clicking and reading the paper by the fire. However Yumiko fears death. Or rather, she fears she is bringing it to those she loves most. She felt she caused the death of her grandmother and the gnawing anxiety grows. Kore-eda being the minimalist that he is, obviously never allows Yumiko to announce this outright in dialogue. To do so would bring it into fruition, to make it true. To breathe life and blood into a bag of bones and a hood knocking on her door. Rather, she states this by her shy insecurities, by looking back twice, by checking doors or by sitting on her hands when her husband doesn’t come home on time.
Yumiko’s reserved husband (played with characteristic wryness by Tadanobu Asano) studies the timing of the local train, racing it on his bike, silently tracing it’s patterns, culminating one night into an inexplicable decision to throw himself underneath it. Perhaps Yumiko was right after all. Immersed into a wintery landscape of depression, she fights for understanding the rest of the film. Truthfully that is all that can be said for plot as Kore-eda doesn’t make movies about plots, he makes movies about tones. Tones for this and tones for that. Tones of the way the sun looks in winter time and tones about the way women bow their head at certain angles when contemplating the suicide of their first husbands. Tones about the life as a new wife to a fisherman in a blustery, grey isolated fishing town and how do you put all of this life and that life together and tie it with a string.
Kore-eda renowned for such contemplative family dramas such as Still Walking, Nobody Knows and Distance, first cuts his teeth on the idea of loss and grieving here. He isn’t afraid to go to the places we are and sits in puddles and rows of transcendental, transmutative grief and quiet. The entire film dips the viewers into a silence deep and all knowing. Kore-eda isn’t trying to eke out some kind of evaluative Bergman shill, he’s going towards a deeper sense of coming together and is more interested in walking with this introverted character while she grapples with hideous questions, alone. One of the vagaries of Kore-eda’s films is that his central characters seem unable to ask questions that need to be asked, to say things that need to be said and to step out from under the heavy vest that is Japanese circumnavigational communication patterns. As Yumiko attempts to build a new life with a new husband, she struggles to maintain an equilibrium from her traumas. She senses a new world in the gray and green landscape of coastal Japan and we are left with a question of whether she chooses to join it. With a cinematographically resplendent palette, the director shows us a quieter Japan, pre-cell phone. A slow life, rich in texture and tone. Truly a masterpiece and one Criterion would do well to add to its collection.