A Girl Under A Tree

A Girl Under A Tree Feature Image

There is not much sense in writing too much about Manga Jima director Moriya Fumio’s latest feature. What he has intended and by all accounts succeeded to accomplish is quite different from any yardstick used to measure movies. There will surely be discussions questioning those intentions and debating its accomplishments. Moriya more than anyone understands the gauntlet he has thrown down for himself as a filmmaker and to the audience who views it which is why he has self-labelled it a “controversial work”. But whatever you think those words mean can not prepare you for what you actually experience.

A Girl Under A Tree is two things. First, it is a still life. It recalls Georges Seurat’s pointillist masterpiece ‘A Sunday on La Grende Jatte’ with the vivid details of its outdoor setting. All manner of shades of green interplay with one another as sunlight backlights and shades the flora around actress Yanagi Elisa (Rolling, Ping Pang, Capturing Dad). There are patterns and textures throughout and fine detail revealed through closer, focused viewing. Yanagi herself would seem at home within Edouard Manet’s ‘The Luncheon on the Grass’ as an equally gentle, understated portrait of a girl lounging on a hammock; even more so whenever Yanagi breaks the fourth wall just as the foreground figure of Manet’s painting. However, this is also a motion picture and therefore it changes as time progresses. The subject moves, changes her pose, and there are layered soundscapes to be enjoyed in that way cinema differs from painting. Listen for the sounds of life going on around her as well as a subtle soundtrack which meanders its way throughout the runtime.

Second, the movie is a meditation. Not on any particular subject matter per se, but the movie itself is the meditation. In that sense, it is likely to reveal much about its audience. Who stays. Who leaves. Who finds value in it. Who dismisses it. Who loses themselves to its world. Who rails against it. When Yanagi breaks the fourth wall, what do they see in her gaze or expression? Do they look back? Or do they look elsewhere to avoid that gaze? The movie affords the audience 90 minutes in real-time to spend with Yanagi and see, hear, and possibly feel everything she does. Perhaps more. Moriya leaves whatever is gained from the experience completely up to the viewer. As one, little green sage once advised, what you find there is “only what you take with you.”

Perhaps before COVID-19, Moriya’s movie may have been panned as a self-indulgent exercise. But as people slowly come out from (continue to) quarantine or are still dealing with life mostly cooped up at home, A Girl Under A Tree could redefine “escapism” in a New Normal movie-going experience. Within those darkened spaces reduced in seating capacity, its calming window onto organic scenery and sound beckons the audience to daydream, to momentarily forget the anxieties of the past months and/or the future. This is theater-quality ASMR (Autonomous Sensory Meridian Response). Therefore, it is safe to say participating with this movie in a theatrical or similar setting is most likely what Moriya truly intends. A Girl Under A Tree is one of those cinema experiences only an independent film can provide and Moriya should be lauded for not only daring to make it, but to actually realize it with aplomb.

Notes on the Margin

– Though a single take, the movie took two days to shoot.
– Moriya and Yanagi had to agree upon ways to communicate as Moriya obviously could not bark out direction to her. More importantly they needed to confirm beforehand the signal for the two times Moriya wanted Yanagi to move. Though he had an image in his head, he fumbled to express what needed to happen afterward resulting in Yanagi perhaps not fully grasping what he wanted for the movie.
– On the first take of the first day, Moriya and the cinematographer noted their camera positioning captured Yanagi too small within the frame. The re-setup cost them 50 minutes and the second take began later than intended, costing them sunlight toward the later section. It was at this point Moriya gave Yanagi direction to look toward the camera and be conscious of the audience beyond.
– The morning of day two, Yanagi emerged smiling from a nearby onsen and told Moriya, “I understand”. He assumed she “understood” what he intended for the movie or perhaps the direction to engage with the audience, but he wasn’t sure how she came to that understanding given the previous day’s occurrences. All that he knew is her face was different that day and he wanted to be on set as soon as possible.
– The first take of the second day started at 3pm. Yanagi hardly moved. Before long she took Moriya’s cue and sat up and just as if they designed it, a breeze blew and rustled the trees. Yanagi’s movements were exactly as Moriya hoped to see indicating she truly did understand what he intended. During the take the sunlight darkened behind clouds so he decided to let the take continue but keep it for additional material.
– Before take two, they readjusted the position of the hammock due to the time of day. Cinematographer Takagi Fuuta said by doing so the sun would come into frame. A check of the monitor showed Yanagi with warm edge lighting giving the scene a floating feeling. That is when they took the still for the poster.

– Take two started at 4:50pm. This time Moriya left the timing to look toward the camera completely up to Yanagi. As predicted, the sun’s movement put it in a direct line with the camera lens and the image slowly began to blowout (turn white or overexposed). Moriya turned toward Takagi to ask if this was a problem, but found Takagi instead delighted by what he was witnessing.


Dentsu Employee Once Isolated at Firm, Finds Fame as Film Director

Filmmakers / Indie Filmmaking
Feature Image of Makoto Nagahisa

From the above titled Asashi Shimbun article by Kenji Komine:

Although he remains a Dentsu employee, Nagahisa was mainly assigned unglamorous projects after he joined the advertising powerhouse in 2007. Instead of producing more creative TV commercials, he made video clips to sell beef at supermarkets and TV programs to promote local mascots. Proceeds from such productions were paltry for Dentsu.

“But I wanted to make things to satisfy clients, so I was busy and it was physically demanding,” Nagahisa said.

The stress caught up with him three years ago, and his health fell apart. He temporarily lost his hearing and couldn’t go out because of chest pain.

Determined to do something he wanted to do before it was too late, Nagahisa decided to make the movie he had dreamed of when he was a student. He took a paid leave of absence and shot his first movie, And So We Put Goldfish in the Pool, in 10 days in 2016. The title won the Short Film Grand Jury Prize at Sundance.

Nagahisa Makoto’s situation is emblematic of the visual creator in Japan. Financial stability can be found by becoming an employee at an advertising firm or other video production house–Dentsu happens to be the largest in Japan–where one is a cog. And in Makoto’s case, a cog they couldn’t figure out where to place and how to utilize. On the other hand, going solo as an independent filmmaker carries with it all the accompanying risks making the option a difficult choice when you have a family for whom to provide. But when one is professionally ostracized for being unique, what is one to do? Fortunately, Makoto had a vision and thankfully the drive (as fear motivated as it was) to create the movie he wanted (“Goldfish”). Many filmmaking voices in Japan must struggle with how to be unique and uncompromising in a society which values the exact opposite from newcomers, and even experienced veterans who work often with major studios. With luck, Makoto’s success abroad will be an example for both filmmakers and their employers of the potential they possess.

“There’s a tendency in modern society to just demand what’s right, saying ‘be positive, be serious,’” Nagahisa added. “But I hope the movie sends the message that it’s OK to run away, be a social recluse or go off the rails at times when it becomes too much for you.”

Makoto Nagahisa

Thank you John Krasinski

Off Topic
SGN Feature Image

SGN is a great idea. Hope he can continue with this every once in a while just as it is. Never a genuine show on a network or streaming service. Of course he’s just sharing what others have been online, but being who he is (plus he’s married to an amazing actress too–so jealous), he’s the perfect distribution point for all those pockets of personal stories throughout the internet.

“Coming Back Sunny”

Coming-Back-Sunny Feature Image

The English language is filled with words to express a feeling or emotion through a color: “green with envy”, “feeling blue”, “seeing red”, “a yellow coward”, etc. But do such words and phrases have equal signficance to the color blind who perceive the world differently? Yuasa Noriko’s short movie Coming Back Sunny is a movie about adolescence and the maelstrom of emotions that come with high school life. Shiori, the protagonist, is unable to perceive red and green. To her these colors seem the same umber color. Then one day, she sees a flash of red in a colorless petal picked up by her friend Yumi. Thus begins Shiori’s plunge into newfound experiences of her world and those around her.

The story is an elegantly styled allegory for a teenage girl’s awakening emotions as it changes her relations with people (and vice-versa); her color-blindness only serves to enchance the wonder and confusion she experiences. The first time the phenomenon occurs, she describes it through onomatopoetic words often used in Japanese: “whoosh, boom, OMG”. It’s not a coicidence those same Japenese words can be used to express the kind of swooning someone may feel when they first fall in love or become attracted to someone. The fact this happens when her friend Yumi touches the petal is of particular importance. But as she begins to see red everywhere, Shiori becomes confused. The situation is not helped by an apparent “betrayal” by her friend, and an encounter with a high school boy who claims they are a destined couple; here the term “blush” being used. Ultimately, Shiori’s bewilderment becomes the impetus for exploring her burgeoning sexual identity and the choices ahead for her.

Taking advantage of a RED cinema camera, Yuasa portrays a bright colorful world around Shiori to emphasize the circumstance of her color-blind protagonist . More importantly, Yuasa skillfully employs editing to paint particular emotional states– drops of water color paint into clear water have both a symbolic significance when cut between scenes such as the moment Shiori becomes angry at Yumi or the opening sequence of dancing, energetic teens; and literal significance as these seem to be the paints being used by a boy Shiori encounters. A skillful storyteller in various mediums and formats, Yuasa displays a confident hand in how she wants this adolescent love story to unfold. If there is only one drawback, the 15 minute runtime only hints at some something more as seen in Yumi’s determined look at the close of the movie. What has been presented would make a fine presentation reel to raise funds for an episodic or feature. Yuasa herself commented on her Instagram (linked here): “This film is my own ‘Romeo and Juliet’. And it is not finished yet, and the story ends just before it reaches its peak.” Fingers crossed she can develop this story to its full potential. An Audience Award win at the ARFF Paris certainly shows there is an (ahem) audience for it. The Firenze Film Corti Festival also just recently announced Coming Back Sunny is a selection finalist for their upcoming 7th edition, though with the coronavirus pandemic, dates are still up in the air.

Meanwhile, Yuasa is developing a feature project from her original screenplay. Currently the project, tentatively titled Performing Kaoru’s Funeral, has begun seeking financing with an American producer which came about through her participation at the American Film Market in 2019. The movie is described as a “heavy comedy . . . packed with immense irony and love” that will “[depict] the last moments of a woman’s life.” More on this as information is released.

“Invisible Creatures” Screening

Invisible Creatures Feature Image

Time travel, time convergences, causalities, and such are usually the stuff of sci-fi or fantastical adventures most recently seen in that movie involving a certain “time heist.” That is not to say the narrative devices can not be used on a smaller scale to equally entertaining and even more profound results. Such is the case with Takayama Kohei’s smartly structured mid-length Invisible Creatures.

Opening with an atmospheric shot introducing two of the central characters–or maybe just one–the strange set up begins a bizarre journey down a Mobiüs strip intertwining what had once happened with what will become. Confusing perhaps, but such is the intent of the movie’s early Lynch-ian developments designed to cast doubt on the situation as much as the male protagonist doubts the old man who claims to be his future self. Whatever “message from the future” the old man may have is garbled and confused as its messenger. As the two mock one another with almost characteristically similar mannerisms, the situation grows more bewildered and frenzied until something happens; a moment of clarity for both in which they recall wanting to become invisible and a forest where only invisible creatures can enter.

From there what transpires is the “present” making amends with the “past”; their convergences leading to self-discovery. On a genre level, Takayama handily creates a narrative about cause and effect, setting past, present, and future on an intriguing collision course through which a cycle is repeated from father to son to daughter. There’s certainly some familiarty to be found in the broader strokes, but this is less a story about undoing the past than it is learning to recognize who you are now from the context of who you had been. Therein lies the true heart of the movie, reinforced by Takayama’s storytelling which–no matter how phantasmagorical–deals with a universally tangible theme.

Invisible Creatures Still
Okada Yurino in Invisible Creatures / ©Takayama Kohei

From the outset of the movie, the idea of becoming invisible is introduced to the young boy central in the story. The forest previously mentioned is a place to reunite with his “grandfather.” Made to feel transparent (the literal translation of the Japanese “tomei”) by his father, he is left with no other recourse than to try invoking some magic so that he may become as invisbile as he is treated. The fanciful notion seems like a typical way a child might deal with playing alone, like an imaginary friend. However, it’s when the story returns to a young girl also seen in the first act arguing with a middle-aged man who summarily dismisses her, telling her to go be with her real mother that the essence of being “transparent” and resolving “to disappear” takes on real-world familiarity. Estranged from her inadequate birth mother, paid little attention from her father, and without friends at school her plight as a teen takes on sympathetic significance; much more so considering a young boy could have similar feelings. When these two meet, there is immediate empathy between them–as if they know one another.

How all this concludes is something best experienced by viewers first hand. Suffice it to say, the offbeat turn of events of the first half literary emerges from the fog with a heartfelt story of the cyclical nature of human beings and seeing one’s part in perpetuating or breaking one’s own cycle.

The Screening

I had not seen Takayama-san since first meeting him at the Osaka Asian Film Festival in 2018, though we have kept in touch. I was more than happy to have this opportunity to speak with him at the screening event, touching base on what he was trying to accomplish with this movie in comparison to The Path Leading to Love. Before the screening began, Takayama-san revealed those in attendance were to be the first to view the completed movie other than himself; those he had invited were the people he wanted to see it. I felt an extra sense of honor when he said this as there were some recognizable names in Japanese film journalism also in attendance.

Invisible Creatures was completed through crowdfunding and there was a second screening for donators immediately after the one I attended so the reception area at the Film School of Tokyo was packed with supporters waiting to enter the screening theater. This meant I only had a short moment to express my quick thoughts on the movie to Takayama-san before having to leave, but I later emailed him a more detailed comment. He later replied that because it’s such an unorthodox movie and people who came to see it were expounding their impressions or interpretations of it, he feels the movie is truly coming to completion as a creative work through this collective sharing.

To that end, Takayama-san is naturally looking to harness screenings at home and abroad to further that sharing. Inquiries can be made at Takayama-san’s homepage by clicking here.