The sleepy life of a remote Japanese fishing village is languorously celebrated in Kazuhiro Soda’s Inland Sea (Minatomachi), which presents itself as the “7th observational documentary” by the New York-based director. As usual, he takes writing, producing, cinematography and editing credits, too. But while this monochromatic slice of life is by some way the shortest Soda picture since 2010’s 75-minute Peace, it struggles to justify a 122-minute running time and would have benefited from being cut by another pair of hands. But there’s more than enough charm, empathy and unfussy skill on show here to reward patient viewers, and Soda can expect his usual round of non-fiction festivals in the wake of a bow in the Berlinale Forum.
Soda, U.S.-based since 1993, risks obvious comparison with his adopted country’s leading documentarian Frederick Wiseman via his preference for baldly descriptive titles (Campaign, Theatre, Mental) and his editorial tendency towards relatively challenging durations. But in most other regards, their approaches dramatically diverge: Soda, operating his own hand-held camera throughout, eschews “fly on the wall” traditions and is often heard volubly interacting with his subjects. He leaves in many rough edges which could be easily smoothed out — focus correction, camera placement — contributing to the breezy, lo-fi mood.
The genial impression is of a friendly fellow wandering around (with his wife/producer Kiyoko Kashiwagi) and filming whatever takes his fancy. His chosen location here is Ushimado (pop. 7,000), roughly equidistant between Hiroshima and Osaka in the west of Japan’s big island, Honshu. It’s the family home of Kashiwagi, though this isn’t mentioned in the film itself, and was also the focus of Soda’s previous outing, the 145-minute Oyster Factory (2015). Located on the shores of the vast body of water which provides the film’s English-language title — the Japanese moniker Minatomachi translates as the more prosaic “port city” — Ushimado retains some vestiges of industry but is evidently a light of former days.
As one resident sighs, the settlement is “aging and getting deserted,” and most of the locals we glimpse are of advanced years. The main focus of the first half is fisherman Wan-chai, a stooped and hearing-impaired 86-year-old whose tireless daylong toil belies his venerable age. Soda accompanies Wan-chai out on his daily fishing expedition and then follows the still-living catch (dead specimens command lower prices) through auction to the shop of Mrs. Kosa, and then with this chatty lady as she goes on her delivery rounds — as she’s done for the last 55 years — through the underpopulated streets.
Soda includes numerous close-ups of piscine distress as the hapless beasts gasp for air — oft-repeated images echoing the most successful fishing-related documentary of recent years, Verena Paravel and Lucien Castaing-Taylor’s much more radical and groundbreaking Leviathan (2012). But while pescophiles may find Inland Sea hard going, it will be catnip for lovers of felines: The myriad four-legged inhabitants of Ushimado, especially a sauntering white puss named Shiro, provide many moments of amusement. (Given the freakish recent success of cat-tastic Turkish documentary Kedi, trailers and promo materials should emphasize this angle.)
Inland Sea is, however, primarily a work of simple and unapologetic humanism, happily in love with people (“We’re as we are,” one remarks). In the second half, the emphasis shifts to local gossip, chatterbox and unofficial guide Kumiko, an octogenarian of child-like enthusiasms whose garrulousness evidently exerts a powerful spell over the director. The fact that she passed away in 2015 during the editing process — the shooting took place back in 2014 — perhaps helps to explain her increasing prominence as the film unfolds, with Wan-chai and Sosa taking more of a back seat, the eponymous sea only intermittently visible.
Admirers of Donald Richie’s seminal, superb, wide-ranging travelogue tome The Inland Sea (1971) certainly shouldn’t go in expecting to find any kind of cinematic equivalent here. Soda only fleetingly indulges in pictorial contemplations of the water (but such grace notes are beautiful indeed); he never strays beyond the confines of one town, and only interviews a tiny fraction of the population. But the main thematic thrust is similar: The bygone ways of this area are being eroded by progress and modernity; many traditions and practices die with the elderly residents. A working port is well on the way to becoming a tourist trap, bustling in the summer but otherwise torpid.
While these undercurrents are unmistakeably elegiac, Inland Sea rejects gloom. A word we keep hearing — conversationally and in greetings — is the magical Japanese term genki, meaning lively, energetic spirit, much prized in a land whose citizens have the longest life expectancy on Earth. Genki is what keeps the likes of Wan-chai and Kumiko going well into their ninth decade, and it is the pulse that sustains Soda’s winningly intimate study of quotidian minutiae.
Production company: Laboratory X
Director-screenwriter-cinematographer-editor: Kazuhiro Soda
Producers: Kiyoko Kashiwagi, Kazuhiro Soda
Venue: Berlin International Film Festival (Forum)
Sales: TriCoast Worldwide, Culver City (email@example.com)