Still the Water
Written and directed by Naomi Kawase
Set on the Japanese tropical island Amami, Still the Water is a Zen-infused coming of age drama, exploring the personal revelations that come with life, death and love. Directed by the Caméra d’Or winner Naomi Kawase and selected to compete for last year’s Palme, it is a serene, contemplative film that comes alive in moments of harmony and rupture. Shot using primarily handheld cameras, Kawase casts a documentarian’s gaze over what develops into a quietly forceful narrative, allowing the exquisite setting to provide much of the visual flair.
When a heavily-tattooed naked body is washed up during the island’s traditional full moon celebrations, the budding relationship between teenagers Kyôko (Jun Yoshinaga) and Kaito (Nijirô Murakami) becomes closer but more complex. Kyôko, like the rest of the community, discuss the incident until it becomes old news, but Kaito continues to brood over its meaning, haunted by a scene that might be a memory or a dream. He briefly visits his father in Tokyo, hoping to find some answers to the mystery, while Kyôko’s terminally-ill mother is discharged from hospital to live out her final days at home with her family.
These narrative strands are beautifully interwoven, reaching a climax in the midst of a violent tropical storm. Dealing with ideas that could easily have become overwrought, Kawase consistently brings the film down to a personal level, using the dramatic moments to drive subtle developments in her characters and their relationships. Kyôko is an engaging protagonist, confident when it comes to expressing her feelings and sexual desire, yet always looking for something that goes beyond the purely social and physical. Kaito, on the other hand, is quiet and reserved, wary of sex and commitment and still troubled by his parents’ long-standing separation. With their love for each other assured, they need to find a way to reconcile their conflicting personalities and deal with the crises that fall their way.
The natural world plays a significant role throughout the film, triggering the major dramatic incidents and healing the wounds the characters sustain. The storms which take place at the beginning and end of the film are destabilising, leading to doubt and then catharsis. Two graphic scenes showing goats being ritually slaughtered, easily the film’s most ambiguous and controversial moments, seem to be staged to educate the young couple about the mysteries of life and death. But overall, nature’s main function is to inspire a deeper connection with the world, an idea which is explicitly expressed through the surfing metaphor that inspired Still the Water’s title. The final sequence, which is a meaningful variation on an earlier scene, takes place under water, the tranquil submersion embodying the film’s central themes. The location must have been a dream to shoot but cinematographer Yutaka Yamazaki’s compositions are nevertheless suffused with harmony and meaning.
Kawase’s ideology is never overbearing and steers clear of simple dichotomies. Kaito’s visit to Toyko could have been presented as a negative experience but the city’s abundance, energy and geometric forms appear just as positive for him and his father as the island’s incomparable beauty does for its inhabitants. The film has a few flaws; the dialogue, particularly among the amateur actors, can be stilted and the close-up camerawork is occasionally too shaky. But there is a simple, transcendent quality to the entire piece, enhanced by Hashiken’s quiet piano and string score. Ultimately, Still the Water is about acceptance, learning to sway with natural forces rather than resisting them, transforming even the most difficult experiences into affirmations of live.
– Rob Dickie