Naked of Defenses -- Film Review

BOTTOM LINE: A genuine, woman-centered story that doesn't wear any feminist heart on its sleeve.

Pusan International Film Festival
New Currents

A poised yet internally turbulent film of almost religious purity and compassion, "Naked of Defenses" devotes its entire time to one central figure, a female Lazarus who rises from spiritual death by connecting with the woman she hates and envies. It arrives at this moving coda by sheer narrative economy. Quality festivals should be discerning enough to select this, but overseas theatrical release is a long shot.

Set in a frugal and sparse community in Japan's Hokuriku region, where a high-tech factory dominates the rural landscape, the film opens in a green field with billowing reeds that is beautiful yet desolate, defining the atmosphere of the protagonists' world.

Skilled worker Kinoshita (Ayako Moriya) had a miscarriage while driving to work. Since then, she's developed a phobia for cars and numbs her pain with mechanical efficiency and indifference. At work, she visually merges with the monstrously impersonal machines. Back home, marital relations are glacial -- the couple eats separately and sleeps apart.

When newcomer Chinatsu (Sanae Konno) is hired, Kinoshita is assigned to show her the ropes. While fellow workers pamper and coo over the heavily pregnant Chinatsu, Kinoshita feels only jealousy and hostility. Chinatsu tries to befriend her by tailing her on walks along the fields. Eventually, Kinoshita confides in Chinatsu and from her regains hope for happiness.

However, when her husband recoils from her attempts to try for another baby, the impact is devastating for her, and for the audience. In a charged scene where she frankly admits to hating Chinatsu, both actresses deliver naked feelings without overacting. Moriya's intense physical presence is the kind more common to stage than screen.

Masahide Ichii directs like a writer who chooses every word with care, and his use of music is exceptional. After shooting mostly in ambient sound, a percussion score makes a heart-pounding impact at the climax, when Kinoshita meets a challenge that tests her humanity. Kind of gives away the ending, doesn't it? The cathartic ending is a freeze frame of her mud-caked, tear-stained face staring with wonder at the miracle of life -- a beatific Madonna-like shot accompanied by a mellifluous song whose lyrics celebrates human interdependence.

Cast: Ayako Moriya, Sanae Konno, Ryuki Nishimoto, Kuniaki Nakamura.
Director-screenwriter-editor: Masahide Ichii.
Producer: Tohiro Nagaya.
Director of photography: Masafumi Seki.
Music: Yuki Asama (Zero-shiki).
Costume designer: Sanae Ichii.
No rating, 88 minutes.