It's less heavy-going than you'd think, but it's still a Japanese minimalist film that's the best part of four hours long, shot more or less in monochrome. I don't think it's proper black and white, instead being sepia with the colour information turned way down... but we're splitting hairs here.
On top of that, Aoyama likes to give his film distance and serenity. It reminds me of the cinematography of some of those old-school Japanese classics, with the actors often being just a fairly small element in the composition. Often they'll be so far away that you can't see exactly what they're thinking or even doing. There's an early scene for instance in which people are running away from a bus and being shot, then an army of police roar up in their cars to surround the crime scene. Sounds exciting, right? Not in this film, boyo. We start with a close-up on the first victim's hand (and no more), then zoom up and out for a crane shot over the entire area. It's as if we're on a church tower. A distant figure falls, then toy cars potter up and disgorge ant-like policemen before Aoyama lets the camera swoop down into the action again. That's all one shot. It's slow, it's rather beautiful and it's making us wonder what the horrors must be like instead of rubbing our faces in it.
That's important for the story. We begin on a bus. It's rural Japan. We're following a fourteen-year-old girl (Aoi Miyazaki), who's sitting next to a boy (Masaru Miyazaki) who'd rather cut his own hand off than look up from his book and talk to someone. He communicates by nudging her and expecting her to read his mind. Presumably they're siblings.
Then there's a bus-jacking, a bunch of people die and fairly soon we're following the survivors two years later. There are three of them - the Miyazaki children and Koji Yakusho. None are in a good place. The Miyazakis are effectively orphans, after their mother walked out, their father committed suicide and Masaru put himself in charge of answering the phone and opening letters. They've stopped going to school and they don't talk to anyone except each other, which is to say they never speak at all. They're like deaf-mutes. This is creepy for a while, then funny. Meanwhile Koji Yakusho felt so guilty about surviving the bus-jacking that he walked out on his wife, job and family and disappeared for two years.
This is a film about survivors and the strange burdens they carry around with them. Pretty much every significant character has something like that in their past, although that's not saying much since our protagonists don't tend to get involved with others. However the film absolutely isn't a Hollywood blub-fest, since these people often have counter-intuitive personal issues and actively avoid emotional engagement with others. There will be some kind of healing for all of them over the course of the film, but remember that word "minimalist". You might also want to consider the words "serial killer".
This film could have gone in a million different directions. Me, I liked it. It lets things happen naturally. It's interested in the scenery. Things happen obliquely, so we're quite often left guessing as to what exactly just happened and the murder of another woman might be indicated by, at most, a floating slipper in the river the following day. It's not a story about violent incidents, but about the survivors. There's a normal guy who just regards it as just something that once happened to him and now doesn't give it much thought, instead being under the impression that he's getting on with his life. Maybe he's right... but if so, why's he hanging out with all the others? They're not self-pitying. It feels real. Come to think of it, maybe it is? Japan's a land where even the earth under your feet is violent and only five years earlier, thirteen people had died in the Sarin gas attack on the Tokyo subway. Aoyama has said that in writing the script, he was thinking of that incident. I can imagine wanting to show this film to someone who'd gone through a similar experience, which thinking about it is quite a compliment.
I like the cast. The Miyazaki children are real-life siblings and they've since gone on to successful careers in the business, most notably Aoi. This won her a Best Actress award at the Japanese Professional Movie Awards and she's also well known for her interest in environmental and humanitarian issues. Mind you, it would have helped a lot that their roles here are basically mime. As for Koji Yakusho, he's a respected actor who's starred in some well-known films, e.g. 13 Assassins, The Uchoten Hotel
, Memoirs of A Geisha.
1. It's a good thing we know Yakusho isn't interested in sex any more. That's a close relationship he establishes with Aoi.
2. There's one point of view here that's kind of scary.
3. The scene with Yakusho and his soon to be ex-wife... wow.
This film won the FIPRESCI Prize and the Prize of the Ecumenical Jury at the Cannes Film Festival. However if you're looking for excitement, this is absolutely not the place. Could you cut the film's last twenty minutes? Of course you could, in a heartbeat, although to do that would be to make the mistake of thinking this film is about its plot developments. Is it slow? Do you need to ask? However it's doing it in a very Japanese way, almost zen in its willingness to let its characters quietly be themselves. Note also the way its love of the natural world is balanced thematically by building work, bulldozers, etc. If you think that sounds boring, you're probably subjectively right for you and I'd suggest steering clear. However if you think it sounds delicate, gentle, sometimes oddly funny and surprisingly watchable despite its length, you'd be agreeing with me.
Anyway, long films aren't so bad. Think of it as a TV mini-series or something.