Initially, the set-up of Joji Koyama and Tujiko Noriko’s Kuro is straightforward: a woman (Noriko, who also composed the film’s score) looking after a man, a voice that speaks almost constantly, set to images of everyday life. The words don’t start right away; before that, she does the laundry, goes to buy him clothes, rubs cream into his face, which barely reacts to her touch. She only starts to narrate at the language school, in French with a heavy Japanese accent: she says she moved to France a year ago to be with her boyfriend Milou (Jackie); she says she was born in California; she says she used to be called Hiromi until one syllable fell away and she was left as Romi, like Romi Schneider; later, she says the German name is short for Rosemary. It means the dew of the sea.
She continues to narrate, but her account is already shifting, the first shifts of many. Without ending the sentence, she speaks now in Japanese and is no longer addressing her classmates, but rather Milou, the images are also different, not just scenes of the man and woman in the apartment, but ones showing the woman wandering the city outside, and others of a cocktail bar elsewhere. Romi asks Milou if he remembers their conversations about the Japanese cartoons they watched in their youth, she reminds him of their first date in Tokyo, of the flippant comment that lost him his job as a photographer, talk of a past in Japan that merges with a present in France, the lights of the metro by night, plates being washed up in the kitchen, malfunctioning limbs in need of gentle manipulation.
She continues to narrate, and sound and image seem to converge for a moment, her head is next to his on the pillow, looking into his eyes, which barely react, her lips move in tandem with Romi’s voice, but it’s still not clear if they’re saying the same thing. Romi talks about the new job she took on after Milou lost his, a live-in position working for a certain Mr. Ono, who is also in need of home care. He’s not entirely incapacitated though, he still has all manner of peculiar habits, to which Romi adapts with ease, even pleasure. Images of an apartment, perhaps Mr. Ono’s apartment, now join the others, although he’s never to be seen, just surfaces cluttered with bottles of medication, crockery, and other trinkets, fine china in the wooden cabinet, piles of yellowing newspapers, ivy growing on the balcony unchecked, the skyline and the surrounding neighborhood. There’s more sunlight in Tokyo than in France and the buildings are different, but when the framings are tighter, it’s not always clear which is which, similar things happen in both.
The voice continues unabated and more shifts become apparent, sometimes it speaks in the first person, sometimes in the third. The story Romi is telling isn’t a happy one, maybe it’s easier to recount when you’re just one of the characters rather than the person who actually experienced it all. Stories are usually told in the past tense, but when Milou finds the key to the roof and climbs the stairs to explore, his impressions of the abandoned garden he discovers there are recounted as if they were happening right at that moment, although how can Romi know what he felt, what he’s feeling, if she wasn’t actually there? He moved into the apartment to spend more time with Romi, which disturbed her routine with Mr. Ono in turn, now a jealous cuckoo in his own cluttered nest, his means of protest limited.
Perhaps the garden is always the same regardless of when you come across it, the blackened, twisted boughs don’t grow, the containers that litter the ground remain where they are, the light through the greenhouse is unchanging. It looks no different in the photos the woman shows the man in Paris or when the narrator talks of the great flood at the end—she says time passes quietly here anyway. Life proceeds quietly elsewhere too, although it’s hardly without incident, the woman seems increasingly forlorn, even desperate, perhaps, spending ever more time outside of the apartment in search of distraction. It’s only when she sings in the bathtub that sound and image truly converge, the song is melancholy, her eye is filled with blood.
Things fall apart in the other apartment just as gently, everything is covered in a film of dust and blobs of plaster, patches of damp bloom ever bigger on the walls and ceiling, pieces of tape stick to the air vent, and the previous clutter now looks more like trash than anything else. It’s a fitting backdrop to how the story told by Romi develops, which itself changes in tone, a realistic account that gradually breaks downs into something akin to a folk tale, where skin peels off, bodies shrink and transform and the rules of the outside world fall away, although such tales are always reflections of its unconscious fears. Mr. Ono finally does find a way of rebelling against the new status quo, although it’s less about breaking out than turning inwards, which makes Milou angry and Romi withdrawn. It’s soon just her in the apartment again with her charge, alone, just the woman in Paris, just like herself.
Before he leaves, Milou gives Mr. Ono a name, Kuruko, until one syllable falls away, and he’s left as Kuro, a funny-sounding name that soon isn’t a joke. Milou says the Kuruko stagehands who work in traditional Bunraku puppet theatre usually dress in black, which renders them invisible: it’s a way of representing something that should not be seen. The name isn’t funny because it’s a perfect description of what Kuro turns into. What sort of things are supposed to remain unseen: illness, frustration, aggression, despair? Once a blank space is there, it sucks in all this and more, making everything disappear, buried under layers of glue and black tape, like all the bits and pieces washed away by a storm, before the sun comes out, before the horizon is seen once again, before the body merges with the soil.