Kamihate Store: Karlovy Vary Film Review

Eloquent Japanese film finds signs of life in a march toward death.

Tatsuya Yamamoto's first feature follows a woman who runs a store in a tiny seaside hamlet near the cliffs where people come to commit suicide.

KARLOVY VARY — First-time Japanese director Tatsuya Yamamoto shows impressive command of his craft in Kamihate Store, one of the films in competition in Karlovy Vary. While the film is a bit too slow moving to make much of a dent in American theaters, it could play well at festivals. At once beautifully photographed and powerfully performed, it manages to turn the subject of suicide into a movie that is life-affirming rather than depressing. Although it doesn’t match the emotional impact of Departures, the Japanese Oscar winner from a few years ago, in a way it’s a more rigorously unsentimental contemplation of the struggle to transcend death.

Chiyo (Keiko Takahashi) runs a store in a tiny seaside hamlet near the cliffs where people come to commit suicide. (The place seems to be a Japanese counterpart to the Golden Gate Bridge in San Francisco.) Since her own father killed himself there years earlier, Chiyo has collected the shoes that people leave on the edge of the cliff just before they jump. She also bakes bread to serve people who want a last meal before their long walk to the cliffs. Chiyo’s own life has been constricting since her mother died of cancer several years earlier. She is increasingly isolated, losing interest in her shop, and we wonder if she may be leaning toward suicide herself. A parallel story line follows her brother living in the city and also feeling suicidal because of mounting financial problems. Brother and sister have lost contact with each other since their mother’s death, but we can tell that these two separate stories will eventually converge.

Suicide rates are said to be high in Japan, and of course Westerners know of the tradition of hara-kiri, but the film does not aim for sociological analysis. It focuses on a few characters and contemplates a more universal sense of desperation that might lead people anywhere to lose the desire to live. Chiyo eventually comes out of her funk and decides to try to stop some of the suicide marchers, while her brother also faces the challenge of taking responsibility for someone besides himself. The themes of isolation and connection are thoughtfully developed by Yamamoto and co-writer Ryushi Mizukami. Individual vignettes help to vary the moods. A scene in which two teenage girls come to visit Kamihate because of rumors they read on the internet provides satiric counterpoint to more melancholy episodes.

Much of the film depends on the central performance. Yamamoto explained in Karlovy Vary that he originally envisioned an older actress in the leading role, but he decided that Takahashi could express the gravity he sought, and indeed she delivers a luminous performance. The setting is exquisitely rendered by cinematographer Shinji Ogawa, and composer Kensaku Tanikawa contributes an intense, eerie musical score that heightens the characters’ sense of loneliness. The unresolved ending may leave some viewers frustrated, but the gradual transformation of Chiyo from apathetic observer to more engaged participant proves to be quite moving.

Venue:  Karlovy Vary International Film Festival
Cast:  Keiko Takahashi, Susumu Terajima, Morio Agata, Ryushi Mizukami, Kento Fukaya, Miho Hiraoka
Director:  Tatsuya Yamamoto
Screenwriters:  Ryushi Mizukami, Tatsuya Yamamoto
Story by:  Haruka Hiatari, Natsumi Yamaguchi
Producers:  Banmei Takahashi, Kaizo Hayashi, Tsukasa Ariyoshi, Syunsuke Koga, Yoshiho Fukuoka
Director of photography:  Shinji Ogawa
Production designer:  Hiroshi Maruyama
Music:  Kensaku Tanikawa
Editor:  Kan Suzuki
Sales:  Open Sesame Co
No rating, 104 minutes