'Early Spring, Kyoto': Mumbai Review

Early Spring Kyoto Still - H 2014
Courtesy of Skeleton Films

Early Spring Kyoto Still - H 2014

An impressive low bow to the traditions of classic Japanese cinema

Zen meets ghosts in Hitoshi Toda’s sequel to ‘Summer, Kyoto’

As delicate as a film by Ozu, who is clearly writer-director Hiroshi Toda’s inspiration, Early Spring, Kyoto (Kyoto, Sosyum) is a parable-like ghost story that wouldn’t scare a fly. Almost a variation on the idiosyncratic Japanese director’s 2013  Summer, Kyoto, this tale of nostalgic spirits shows them hanging on to the living, much as the living hang on to them, until in the end everyone goes their own way the wiser for it. After bowing at Mumbai, these reflections on death and old age should make some more inroads for Toda (Night of Fish, Seventh Cat) on the festival circuit and could well entertain the older art house crowd.

The soul of the film is old-timer Kenichi (Yoichi Hayashi), a recent widower who still feels his late wife’s presence keenly. While he does the ironing in his one-room apartment, her ghost (Harumi Arai) hovers behind him with a loving smile. His daughter occasionally helps out in his small café, where he is learning to fix sandwiches alone. All this is closely observed.

All signs point to a lovely personality in this warm, masculine figure who likes to have his fortune told and is delighted when it reads “excellent”. A potentially threatening scuffle with two punks unexpectedly turns to humor when Kenichi turns out not to be the helpless old man they take him for. This has been ably foreshadowed in a brief scene in which he practices some gentle martial art by the riverside, so it doesn’t just come out of the blue.

There are life’s mysteries all around, like an old man (Shyoji Yamada) who roams the streets joyfully feeding cats and gulls, who claims not to remember his age. One could take him for the Buddha himself. He sets the stage for Kenichi’s close encounter with the dead in the long final sequence when he drives to a remote cemetery in a dark forest to inter his wife’s ashes in the family tomb. There he meets his still-beautiful childhood playmate Mitsuko, who looks remarkably like his dead wife. Desperately lonely, she lives with her bedridden mother who is 105 years old. How old, then, is Mitsuko?

As in Summer, Kyoto, Yoichi Hayashi is extremely dignified without being predictable as the old householder whose life is changed by a strange encounter. Playing the wide-eyed fellow who stares at the world in wonder, Shyoji Yamada (who also appears in Stairs of Spider as the UFO seeker) practically carries over his mystery character from Summer, Kyoto.

Toda rarely makes a misstep in this impressive low bow to the traditions of classic Japanese cinema. Guillaume Tauveron and Toda’s black and white camerawork skillfully incorporates some slow motion and jump cuts to Zen-like effect. The low camera and fixed frame use a restful black and white palette, until the final shots burst into color as though heralding springtime. Mica Toda’s plaintive melodies provide a subtle accompaniment to the protagonist’s inner journey.

Production companies: Skeleton Films, Hiroshi Toda Production
Yoichi Hayashi, Harumi Arai, Shyoji Yamada
Director, Screenwriter: Hiroshi Toda
Producers: Mica Toda, Masato Hanazawa
Directors of photography: Guillaume Tauveron, Hiroshi Toda
Editor: Hiroshi Toda
Music: Mica Toda
No rating, 90 minutes