Close-Up is a feature that spotlights films now playing on MUBI. Naomi Kawase's Still the Water (2014) is showing March 15 – April 13, 2019 in the United States as part of the double feature Love and Death in Japan.
It’s been a little over two decades since Naomi Kawase emerged triumphant from the 1997 Cannes Film Festival with her Camera d’Or winning debut film, Moe no Suzaku. Since then the Japanese auteur has pivoted back and forth between fiction and nonfiction, but remains steadfast in her commitment to capturing the erotic undercurrents of the natural world, and how these elements unfold alongside personal reckonings, realizations, and tragedies.
The recent success of Hirokazu Kore-eda’s Shoplifters—its institutional recognition at Cannes and in Hollywood marking the culmination of over a decade of critically-beloved trademark family dramas by the director—would seem to pit the two Japanese filmmakers against each other. Both are Cannes regulars, and both chronicle Japanese life with a distinctly gentle touch. Yet the tendency to clump together these filmmakers comes at the expense of measuring Kawase’s sensual experimentation against the formalism and precise sentimentality of Kore-eda. Less concerned with looking at social structures through the lens of realism, Kawase’s work is distinguished by its layering of imagery and temporal manipulation to locate ruptures and points of convergence between human nature and environmental phenomenon.
Still the Water begins on the eve of a promised rendezvous: the ocean tide thrashing, the village in the throes of a ritual folk dance. Young Kaito (Nijiro Murakami) finds a belly-down corpse drifting to shore and runs away, past the expectant Kyoko (Junko Abe), the deep black-blue of the ocean night quaking and kicking up uncertainty all around them. Contrary to expectations, the story resists succumbing to the procedural plot points that an unidentified corpse would seem to merit. As local authorities investigate the perimeter, the camera remains fixed on Kaito as he looks on in silent contemplation. Its face obscured at the moment of discovery, the corpse’s one distinguishing marker is a large dragon tattoo stretched across its back. Later we’ll learn that Kaito’s city-dwelling father is a tattoo artist, with a similar scaly composition in the same spot. There is a mystery afoot, but one of intimate scale triggered by the gravitas of a young boy confronting the abject reality of death and bodily alienation.
Set in the subtropical island of Amami Oshima, located south of the Japanese mainland, Still the Water boasts striking natural scenery captured by cinematographer Yutaka Yamazaki’s spirited camera; it basks in the violence of a typhoon, chases the lengths of a mangrove patch with a mesmerizing long tracking shot. Each image is invested with a sense of wonder and awe: Kyoko and her terminally ill mother look up at their dazzling, 400-year-old backyard banyan tree, and the camera’s prolonged interest seems to activate the branches into wriggling tentacles. Extended bike rides, often with Kyoko mounted on the back tires, offer glorious, lyrical reprieves to the character’s anxieties regarding love and death. Two young bodies progressing through the island’s flora and fauna, the endless sea looming in the background, while mid-range shots cuts off their legs to make them appear as two floating bodies, breathlessly in sync. These harmonious occasions are rare.
Typically, the young lovers remain awkwardly out of step. While Kaito buries himself in silent emo posturing, Kyoko is lively, bold, even aggressive at times. News of a public ban on swimming prompts the defiant teen to take a dip fully clothed in her school uniform, a rebellion that—characteristic of young people—lacks direction, but is nonetheless tangible and confrontational in its soggy indifference. A beachside hang at sunset ends with Kyoko’s evocative suggestion of sex, though an earlier exchange revealing Kaito’s fear of the ocean (“it’s alive,” he murmurs) is met with disbelief: “I’m alive, too” Kyoko declares.
In stillness, just as in movement, Kawase seems to suggest that there is comparable energy, a certain insurmountable potency sparked even in moments of rest. With trembling handheld camerawork that hearkens back to Kawase’s earlier documentary films, Still the Water lingers in otherwise static moments, injecting them, it would seem, with power as the camera remains attached to subjects through the duration of nearly imperceptible dramatic transitions. Entire hidden thought processes and mental shiftings are captured in stillness—Kyoto staring at Kaito after her proposition, Kaito washing his father’s tattooed back—but blown up to entrap meaning within the cross hairs of time. While Kaito looks at death from the periphery, with a mere panicked glance, a look of disgust, or confusion, Kyoko stares it directly in the face, with bold but graceful acceptance. Death comes in many ways, within community, almost as a rite of tradition and celebration as in the dignified death of Kyoko’s mother, or reversely, as shameless in its temporary but painful moment of dissolution, as in a shaman’s graphic slaughter of a goat.
Framed as a coming of age story, Still the Water explores the interconnection of sex and death through the purview of hormonal grievances, with Kaito in particular struggling to make sense of his own libidinal investments—his mother and Kyoko—as they threaten to belittle or overwhelm his mostly uninitiated grasp on life. In a dream of oedipal proportions, Kaito sees his mother naked, her body skeletal and throbbing on the shore, presumably at the scene of the murder referenced at the start of the film. How to go on? How to live and make love when nature forever threatens to eviscerate the body? When other bodies themselves can in an instant seem like unappealing, alienated morsels of flesh?
“Traces of people persist in the natural world,” explains an old shaman to the mourning Kyoko. “It’s not enough...” she trails off. Our bodies decompose, and every day is an act of resistance against nature, the shaman says in so many words. And yet the final shot—of Kyoko and Kaito swimming nude through the still ocean waters hand-in-hand—suggests a transient moment of grace and youthful romanticism not in spite of, but in harmony with imposing and vast natural offerings. One cannot help but admire this tranquility in a world that will only continue to yield deaths and storms.