Close-Up is a feature that spotlights films now playing on MUBI. Natsuka Kusano's Domains is exclusively showing March 12 - April 10, 2020 in MUBI's Undiscovered series.
For her second feature, Domains, Natsuka Kusano wanted to make a film that can witness an actor's transformation. In Japanese, she uses the term 事件 (jiken) or "case" in reference to this transformation, like a case of a crime or an event. In Domains there are indeed two cases operating on a fictional and non-fictional level: the investigation of the murder of a young girl (fiction) and the investigation of actors rehearsing their roles (non-fiction).
The film opens with a policeman (Kenta Ryu) reading back a statement by Aki Takemoto (Asami Shibuya) on murdering her friend's three-year-old daughter, Honoka. As the policeman reads back her words to confirm that there are no mistakes, Aki sits, looking detached. The recounting is chronological and the retelling is eerily mundane. It narrates the events that led up to the moment of the murder which, per Aki's account, was not pre-meditated. At the end of her testimony, there is mention of a letter that she wrote to her friend and mother of the child, Nodoka (Tomo Kasajima), after the murder. In it, Aki says, she attempted to speak about the many feelings behind her actions but to anybody else reading the letter, it will not make sense. She says it's something that only Nodoka and Aki will understand.
When the policeman asks about "the kingdom made with chairs and sheets on the day of the typhoon," that Aki had written in the letter, she responds that she can't explain it. What the policeman does not know is that there are two days of the typhoon and he is only privy to one: the day of the typhoon when Aki commits the murder. What he does not know is that Aki and Nodoka had also experienced a typhoon together in their youth. Aki says to the policeman that the day was "a very fulfilling day for us." A different translation of this line might be, "a slightly, more densely concentrated day." A mysterious line which gains more sense as the film continues to unfold.
Naturally, suspense is built by the unknown. What is it that Aki is not saying? What is it that we cannot understand or that she cannot explain? What follows after the first 15 minutes is what makes this 150-minute film a rigorous undertaking into exploring the unspoken via the realm of what is said. For its substantial length, what is indeed said, or rather, what new things are said are few, since the rest of the film is almost entirely spent on repeated depictions of table readings and rehearsals by actors Asami Shibuya reading Aki Takemoto's lines, Tomo Kasajima reading as her friend Nodoka, and Tomomitsu Adachi reading as Nodoka's husband, Naoto. The scenes that the actors are rehearsing are of the incidents narrated earlier in Aki's testimony. Different scenes from what looks like different rehearsals done over the course of multiple days, are shown repeatedly and the film's edit cuts in and out at different moments of the rehearsed scenes. So, with each new shot, new details are revealed in a) the plot of the fiction and b) the transformation of actors embodying their roles. Most often, details are revealed in both.
It is this ability that Domains is able to hold together the interest in both the fiction and the non-fiction that makes the film so remarkable and affecting. As the actors increasingly begin to embody their roles through rehearsals, the distinction between their characters and their craft become increasingly blurry (a testament to the magic of the craft). To further complicate, the film also intercuts stylized scenes that render as excerpts from the film that the actors are supposedly rehearsing for. In some of the film's best moments, the camera cleverly chooses to maintain its gaze on one actor as they read the lines from a scene during a rehearsal. The acting becomes so enchanting that a tingling horror is felt when the camera pans to an actor, who in the realm of the fiction, should not be in the same room; even though, in the realm of the non-fiction, the actor would unsurprisingly be there during a table reading by the cast. An unsettling slippage occurs between the fiction and non-fiction worlds, or perhaps, the better word: domains.
Domains takes both its Japanese and English title from the legendary photobook and exhibition of the works by photographer Ikko Narahara (who passed away just last month) that juxtaposed photographs taken in two very differently secluded realms: a Trappist monk monastery and a women's prison. Two realms that may never meet in actuality but do, within Narahara's work. The Japanese title for both Narahara's work and Kusano's work are 王国 (Oukoku) or "Kingdom" though, Kusano's film has the additional subtitle あるいはその家について (Aruiwa sono ie ni tsuite) which means "Or about that house." Who or what is the "king" in a monk monastery and in a women's prison? Who or what oversees those domains? Are they imaginary? Are they authoritarian? All of these questions feel relevant to the figurative qualities of Kusano's work and the concerns of her film and the fiction film within the film.
As Notebook editor Daniel Kasman has written, Domains' form is reminiscent of Jacques Rivette's theatrical conspiracies and also of the elongated scenes in Ryusuke Hamaguchi's Happy Hour (Hamaguchi's film and Domains share the same scriptwriter, Tomoyuki Takahashi). But perhaps another compelling point of access to Kusano's formalist ambitions are the works of the writer Gertrude Stein, who understood that repetition is different each time and that these differences are key to revealing what is unsaid. In a lecture, dramaturge Matthew Goulish explained that, Stein's work is operating in the "sense" of a word over its meaning. He said that,
"the sense of a word is the sum of all the psychological events aroused in one’s consciousness by the word. It is a dynamic, fluid, complex whole, which has several zones of unequal stability. Meaning is only one of the zones of sense, the most stable, the one we attempt to agree on. A word acquires its sense from the context in which it appears, from its accumulated usages and experiences; in different contexts, it changes its sense."
In this light, in Domains, this static approach to words vis-à-vis their meanings, is perhaps closest to how the policeman approaches Aki's testimony: to stabilize and come to an agreement. Each repetition of the same lines or scenes in the rest of the film, are presented differently and with each repetition, a new sense is gained, of the same lines.
In a special exhibition of Domains at the venue scool in Tokyo last year, the film was screened in an installation-like setting, in which audiences were invited to come and go as they please and even talk quietly amongst themselves. However, Kusano did ask of those who experience the film this way to have had prior experience in watching the film in its entirety. In the statement about this presentation, Kusano said that she believes that by re-visiting the film, new discoveries can be made. In other words: a repeat viewing in a different way. With this in mind, it's exciting to think of the possibilities that this film can offer on MUBI, where repeat-viewing is possible and the film can continue to unfold.