Another example of how Naomi Kawase is a distinct and undervalued filmmaker.
Still the Water (TIFF Review)
At one point during Still the Water, a character says one has to “keep a humble attitude towards nature; it’s impossible to resist it.” That line might be the most succinct summary of what writer/director Naomi Kawase shows throughout her film. Taking place on the gorgeous island of Amami-Oshima, Still the Water delves into themes that have run throughout all of her films: the cycle of nature, life, death, love, humanity’s relationship with nature. Kawase tackles these large-scale motifs with a calm, zen-like approach, making Still the Water a pleasant viewing experience.
After a nearly wordless prologue of shots showing various aspects of life, death, and nature (a ritual dance, a goat getting slaughtered, and gorgeous shots of the massive sea surrounding the tiny island), 16-year-old Kaito (Nijiro Murakami) discovers the washed up body of a man covered in tattoos. Kaito freaks out and runs away, while his girlfriend Kyoko (Jun Yoshinaga) doesn’t react at all. The next day she expresses frustration at Kaito for running away instead of meeting with her as he was supposed to. The mystery over the washed up body soon vanishes from the film altogether, only to come up again briefly in the final act, and Kawase keeps her camera’s focus on Kaito and Kyoko.
Kaito lives with his hard-working single mother Misaki (Makiko Watanabe), their relationship a distant one due to her constantly being at work. Kyoko’s mother Isa (Miyuki Matsuda) is dying, and with only a short time to live she leaves the hospital to spend her final days at home. Kaito’s loss of a family unit from his parent’s divorce and Kyoko’s imminent loss of her mother force the two adolescents to come of age, and as they fall in love with each other they confront both the beauty and harshness of the natural world.
Kawase tends to get a bum rap from critics, mainly because she doesn’t get much recognition or notoriety outside of Cannes. Undeniably, Kawase’s style can rub viewers the wrong way. Characters tend to spit out one sentence philosophies and life lessons, and the leads’ youthful naiveté lets Kawase get away with lines like “Why do people have to be born and why do they die?” Her pacing, seemingly nonexistent, could be seen as meandering. I’ll admit that Kawase lends a little too much self-importance to her work (case in point: before her film screened at Cannes she called it a masterpiece deserving of the Palme D’Or, a statement giving her detractors plenty of ammo), but I tend to enjoy her films. She knows how to create a gentle rhythm, one that makes it easy to embrace her optimistic worldview. The strengths of Kawase’s style tend to show themselves most in small, self-contained chunks. The best examples in Still the Water come when Kaito visits his father in Tokyo, a sequence highlighting the connectedness between humans and their environment, along with Isa’s death scene, a long and ultimately moving moment in the film.
Regrettably, Kawase can’t sustain the highs generated from those scenes throughout her film. The return of the washed up body at the beginning makes a dulled impact because, by this point, the larger themes have taken over, making the resolution nothing more than an afterthought. But even during the more restless moments of its 2-hour runtime, Still the Water showcases the gorgeous, subtropical landscape of its location. Kawase may not have the kind of support other international auteurs get from audiences and critics, but Still the Water is yet another example of how she’s a distinct and undervalued filmmaker.