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The Forgotten: Grave of the Fireflies

Three kids stake out an old man's house to see if he'll die, in Shinji Sômai's magical coming-of-age drama.
David Cairns

This year's Edinburgh International Film Festival bounces back with a varied and dynamic program courtesy of artistic director Chris Fujiwara, more than making up for last year's lack of a retrospective with two extensive appreciations of neglected filmmakers, Gregory La Cava from the US and Shinji Sômai from Japan. Sômai, who died young after a career span of just twenty years, is much-appreciated in his native land but little know outside it; thanks to this show, a progressively growing band of followers are discovering his amazing oeuvre. One nice moment came when Tilda Swinton, sitting in the seat in front of me to watch The Catch (Gyoei no mure, 1983), watched Ken Ogata piloting his fishing boat out of the harbor, with his blazing red sweater and jutting cigarette, and she reached up with both hands as if to seize the image and carry it home with her to Nairn.

My own favorite thus far may be Moving (Ohikkoshi, 1993), centered on a mesmerizing performance by twelve-year-old Tomoko Tabata, but Friends (Natsu no niwa, 1994) is even less widely-known, and besides, I wanted to show you a particular scene...

The title's true translation is Summer Garden, and much of the action is based in the overgrown back yard of an elderly man. Three children come to spy on him, in hopes of being able to be the ones to eventually discover his dead body when he croaks. This mission, a little like the expedition in Rob Reiner's Stand by Me in its macabre-yet-innocent intent, is discarded when the kids actually befriend the old chap, and set about making over his home and garden into a thing of beauty. On the way they learn what turned him into an embittered loner and try to reconnect him to his family...

In this scene, the old man, still a threatening stranger to the kids, has disappeared, so one of them goes to check out the hospital in case he's there. ("When I had pink-eye I went to hospital and it was full of old people.") The visit gradually metamorphoses from a naturalistic exploration into a kind of ghost train ride, full of fantastical and subtly supernatural imagery. The mythic world is forever lurking just within or behind the fabric of everyday reality in Sômai's work, which is perhaps a typically Japanese quality.

The whole sequence establishes the presence of the mysterious and mythical in the film's world, which returns at the end with a "miracle"—a dried-up well, down which dead butterflies have been dumped throughout the story, suddenly releases a storm of moths, butterflies and fireflies, magically reanimated. The old man had mentioned that a moth might be the visiting soul of a dead person...

Sômai worked with kids a lot, and shows a remarkable ability to both enter their world and hang back and observe through adult eyes, according to the story's demands. His three heroes here have broadly typed characteristics (fat one, speccy one, "normal" one), setting us up for some simplistic kid-flick, but the places the story chooses to go—which include an account of a horrific incident from WWII—are way beyond the depth, tonal range or moral courage normally associated with films made for young teenagers.

As a visual stylist, Sômai is consistently amazing, with long takes that sometimes appear to extend beyond the duration of a film reel (he's also adept at hiding his cuts when he wants to). His camera can not only switch from shuffling along hand-held, to soaring through the air twenty feet up, it can also, like that of Max Ophüls, travel through time, bridging action separated by weeks of story time in a single shot (best illustrated in Lost Chapter of Snow: Passion, 1985). In addition, certain visual tropes recur obsessively: characters throw objects back and forth, plunge into water, are drenched in typhoons, and set off fireworks, flares, torches or fire sculptures.

These extremely consistent qualities run through an exceptionally broad range of stories, some genre exercises, some quite unclassifiable, and while many of the films focus on kids and teenagers (and struck resonant chords with young audiences at the time of their release), no single trait predominates or is even present across all the movies. And yet, seeing the films together, it's obvious that Sômai offers one of the most distinctive, powerful visions of recent cinema anywhere, with a camera that can travel anywhere, not only through space and time but under the viewer's skin.


The Forgotten is a regular Thursday column by David Cairns, author of Shadowplay.


Shinji SomaiThe ForgottenEdinburghEdinburgh 2012Festival CoverageColumns
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