What Starts Upstream: On ”Gift“ and ”Evil Does Not Exist“

Eiko Ishibashi’s music and Ryusuke Hamaguchi’s images eclipse one another like the sun and the moon.
Sasha Frere-Jones

Illustrations by Zoé Maghamès Peters.

The Nagano prefecture is a snowy, mountainous region of Japan where Tokyo residents like to ski and wander through the forests, away from the pressures of the city. Some even have country houses there. This is the area where composer Eiko Ishibashi lives with her partner, musician Jim O’Rourke. 

In 2022, Ishibashi received a request from promoter Florian Felix to present a combination of brand-new music and images in concert. Ishibashi asked Ryusuke Hamaguchi if he was interested in helping put together the visual part. The two had gotten to know each other when they collaborated on his Oscar-winning film Drive My Car (2021). 

“He came out here to Nagano to see what he could shoot,” O’Rourke recalled when we spoke earlier this year, “and he also shot Eiko and a few other people playing.” O’Rourke performed with the group, too. He compared the setup to One Plus One (1968), in which Jean-Luc Godard captures a studio session for the Rolling Stones’ Beggars Banquet.

“While he was making that, he decided that the best way to do it was to just actually make a film,” Ishibashi added. “So he wrote a script and came back out and filmed the movie.”

Two projects emerged from that process: first, Evil Does Not Exist (2023), a full-length feature with a score by Ishibashi, and then Gift (2023), the shorter, silent version designed for her live accompaniment. The germ of Evil’s story did not come from filming Ishibashi and O’Rourke playing, though. While staying in Nagano, Hamaguchi attended a local community board meeting about a proposed glamping settlement coming to the area. This is where the narrative began to take shape, and his inciting focus on the bystanders, the victims of development, recalls his documentary trilogy about the Tōhoku earthquake and tsunami: The Sound of Waves (2012), Voices from the Waves (2013), and Storytellers (2013). These are very simple productions. A fixed camera films people sitting in a high school gymnasium and talking about the horrors of the earthquake. “How did you feel seeing your house washed away?” is one question posed by the interviewer.

Evil Does Not Exist (Ryusuke Hamaguchi, 2023).

Gift and Evil represent two masters at their most relaxed, in a place of mutual support. Their project depends on the interplay of three elements: the snowy woods of Nagano, the daily lives of the locals, and Ishibashi’s music. The score is perhaps the most important of the three, like a judgmental god surveying the goings-on.

The narrative focuses on a widower, Takumi, and his daughter, Hana. He makes a modest living by chopping wood and gathering wild wasabi for a friend who runs a local udon restaurant in their village. When two representatives of Playmode, a glamping company, arrive in the community, the townspeople meet their worst nightmare, someone who respects neither their lives nor the land. The community board meeting is a direct echo of scenes from the Tōhoku trilogy as well as Frederick Wiseman’s City Hall (2020), which Hamaguchi has cited as an inspiration. 

The Playmode representatives are utterly unprepared to deal with the residents of the town and how clearly they see the dangers of this proposal. The campground will generate new sewage, for which the initial plan hasn’t accounted, and will pollute their water supply. An elder points out that what starts upstream will always flow downstream. Takumi’s friend at the udon shop makes noodles using the stream water—this is a direct threat to their existence. The Playmode boss, only ever a face on the screen, obviously doesn’t care, but the two who are on the ground and face-to-face with the locals become increasingly troubled by a plan that would plainly be a disaster. 

Hamaguchi uses abrupt edits to alienate the viewer and make them track the images and sounds separately: sequences conclude unexpectedly, as do Ishibashi’s musical passages. Hamaguchi’s eye and Ishibashi’s ear are two forces with the power to eclipse each other. The characters exist below them, on the earth, illuminated and obscured as the films progress. 

Evil Does Not Exist (Ryusuke Hamaguchi, 2023).

Ishibashi draws from three main banks of material: her own solo recordings, a trio session with O’Rourke and drummer Tatsuhisa Yamamoto, and the project’s main theme, played by violinist MIO.O and cellist Kirin Uchida, who combine in multitracking to create a string section. The theme feels instantly canonical, like something that must already exist, more than a little like Ryuichi Sakamoto’s late work. It’s the kind of motif and slow-breathing arrangement that makes your chest open in anticipation of emotions you have not yet had. It is simply gorgeous, endlessly replayable. 

The score of Evil Does Not Exist leans more heavily on the string section theme and only small snatches of the other two sessions. For a live performance of Gift at New York’s Lincoln Center in May, Ishibashi played flute and mixed the stems of all the tracks from her laptop. Since each performance of Gift is different, there is no way to describe it as a fixed work; the format sees Ishibashi reenter an ongoing dialogue with the film. The show I saw drew largely on the recording of the live trio and deemphasized the strings, but the opposite could be true if you went to see the next performance of Gift, on June 16 at the Bakuon Film Festival in Tokyo.

In Evil, the story of Takumi and Hana is told through dialogue, sometimes quite sparse, sometimes in lengthy, leisurely exchanges (one a long car ride on which Takumi explains to the Playmode officers how deer behave when they are shot). In Gift, which runs 30 minutes shorter, everything is compressed. All of the spoken elements are boiled down to a handful of intertitles printed over the image, which largely eliminates Evil’s instances of deadpan comedy. At the Lincoln Center performance, Yamamoto’s ride cymbal became its own character. (In Evil, you hear the cymbal briefly in the opening sequence and during a very important scene involving a deer, but nowhere else.) The live band recording is not louder or more aggressive than the string section; rather, the delicacy of O’Rourke, Yamamoto, and Ishibashi together represents a gentle kind of waking state, the expression of the forest itself, while the strings give voice to something more immediate and human.

Hamaguchi’s imagery is evidence of his empathy, his ability to sit still with people and let them talk, the same nobility of existence that his earthquake trilogy honors. With the introduction of the music, the widower becomes like a glowing coal in the center of the movie, especially in Gift, which mostly excises scenes with secondary characters. When the village elder speaks about that which flows downstream, he is talking about Takumi. And when Takumi is talking about the deer which only strikes when wounded, he is talking about himself. The dignity of Ishibashi’s music completes the idea of Takumi as metonym—for the land, for the streams and deer and wasabi plants, all of which will exist past the demise of Playmode and the sophisticated know-nothings of the cities.

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Ryusuke HamguchiEiko Ishibashi
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