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Don’t think, don’t overanalyze, feel what’s around you, absorb rather than learn. These are the teachings of Kirin Kiki’s tea ceremony character in Every Day a Good Day, but they might as well be her own maxims about acting.
In what would be her final screen appearance before her death last month at the age of 75, the veteran delivers a natural and typically effective performance in what is essentially a very static story about rituals and the passing of the seasons.
And to think the actor is a supporting player here, Every Day a Good Day is about how a young woman’s induction and immersion into the meditative Japanese tea ceremony helped her scale myriad obstacles in her life across two decades. But just as in her decadelong collaborations with Hirokazu Kore-eda — ranging from Still Walking (2008) to this year’s Palme d’Or winner Shoplifters — she propels the film forward and ups the director’s and her fellow actors’ game without resorting to pomp or bluster.
Adapting essays by Noriko Morishita — who, according to the production notes, personal supervised the filming of the rituals, the actors’ gestures and the exquisite cakes shown onscreen — director Tatsushi Omori has in turn emerged from his long-running, violence-drenched metier to deliver a graceful, elegiac and ceaselessly beautiful rite-of-passage drama. Bowing in Busan before opening in Japan on Oct. 11, Every Day a Good Day should travel on both its own merit but also as a memorial for Kiki. The film will unspool next in Hong Kong as part of a showcase of the actor’s films in the city’s annual Asian Film Festival.
One of Omori’s best moves here is to cast Haru Kuroki as his protagonist. The winner of the Berlinale’s best actress award in 2014 with her role as a housemaid in Yoji Yamada’s The Little House, the 28-year-old’s (comparatively) plain looks and unglamorous persona are a tight fit with Every Day’s tone and ambience. Here, she plays Noriko, who begins the film about to graduate from university. Considered by her parents as too dull and unfocused — “a klutz,” as she herself says in a voiceover — she hesitantly agrees to study chado, the traditional Japanese practice that is seen partly as preparation of tea and partly as an intense performance art.
Joined by her more confident (and prettier) cousin Michiko (Mikako Tabe), Noriko — who initially favors learning flamenco or Italian rather than studying something she considers dated and boring — begins classes with Takeda (Kiki). Cue 15 minutes of the master’s meticulous instructions about the proper way of conducting the ceremony; the first of them, the proper folding of a napkin, is a 20-step process. But these scenes are essential: More than being accurate of and reverent to the tradition, they showcase Kiki’s craft — she’s so natural, she appears to be really a tea ceremony sensei herself — and also excuses the director of having to disrupt the rhythm of his story so as to prove his authenticity to the art.
The fact that Seibu Hiroko’s score draws more from Western-style romanticism than Japanese music speaks volumes about Omori’s efforts in steering Every Day from becoming mere cultural exotica or food porn (even though the tea cakes would certainly whet one’s appetite for desserts). Rather, through subtle shifts in time and season — courtesy of Kenji Maki’s camerawork and the production design of Mitsuo Harada and Genki Horime — Omori tracks her leading character’s ever-increasing interest in the ceremony, and her way of making sense of her life through the inspirations she has while conducting the tea rituals. Some of these ideas come more explicitly through the ink text-drawings hanging in Kaneda’s ceremony room; some others arrive through understanding of the details of the practice (such as how tea bowls are designed to fit the drinker’s bowl, an allusion to the need of one being at ease with people and circumstances).
As Noriko persists in undertaking the weekly appointment at Kaneda’s over a 24-year spell, people drop in and out of the room. Michiko is the first to go, soon replaced by a whole army of bumbling newcomers whose comic relief is actually at odds with the general tone of the film. Omori’s two other major missteps also involve misguided moments of melodrama, when Kuroki goes to cliched histrionics in displaying Noriko’s breakdown over a failed relationship and then a family tragedy.
This is where Kiki comes in and saves the day with her poise and control. Living up to her advice of working with what’s around her, she is alongside Kuroki at the younger actor’s most nuanced scene, when the pair sit together on a veranda, observe the falling cherry blossom and mourn of the loved ones who have passed away. Boasting similar instances aplenty, Every Day a Good Day is a moving ode to an actor who would make every scene, well, a good scene.
Production company: “Every Day a Good Day” Production Committee, Yoake Pictures, Harvest Film
Cast: Haru Kuroki, Kirin Kiki, Mikako Tabe
Director: Tatushi Omori
Producers: Tomomi Yoshimura, Ryuji Kanai, Kondo Takahiko
Screenwriter: Tatsushi Omori, based on an essay by Noriko Morishita
Director of photography: Kenji Maki
Production designer: Mitsuo Harada, Genki Horime
Costume designer: Masa Miyamoto
Editor: Ryo Hayano
Music: Seibu Hiroko
Venue: Tokyo International Film Festival
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