Japan Society’s annual summer film festival, JAPAN CUTS, begins July 9, offering us a glimpse into Japan’s contemporary film culture with 28 titles that are politically charged, somewhat rebellious, and filled with social commentary. JC•NYC is counting down to the ninth installment of North America’s largest celebration of Japanese cinema with a few reviews, beginning with And the Mud Ship Sails Away (Soshite Dorobune wa Yuku), a 2013 film directed by Hirobumi Watanabe.
Takashi (Kiyohiko Shibukawa) has nothing going for him. Absolutely nothing. He is the son of a deadbeat dad and is a deadbeat dad himself. He is unemployed and has no desire to become employed. He spends his days smoking cigarettes, playing pachinko, and watching TV with his obaachan (Misao Hirayama, the adorable 96-year-old grandmother of the film’s director, Hirobumi Watanabe). He sleeps a lot. You’d never set him up with one of your friends. Still, Takashi somehow manages to be a likeable guy. Although occasionally moody, he doesn’t seem stressed or embarrassed about his lack of employment. In fact, he makes fun of his friend Shohei (Kaoru Iida) for actually having a job. Granted, it’s a job that requires shoveling cow manure all day, but it’s a living.
Out of nowhere Yuka (Ayasa Takahashi) arrives at Takashi’s door, after dragging her large, black suitcase on an hour-long walk from the train station, to inform him that she’s his half-sister and they share the same deadbeat dad. That’s about all they share, as the teenaged Yuka develops and instant distaste for her long lost, 36-year-old half-brother and his slacker ways. Yet he invites her to stay, and they form a bond. Yuka constantly scolds Takashi for being a lump with no ambition, while she is skipping school to spend time doing . . . well, nothing with him, Grandma, and Shohei (#irony).
And the Mud Ship Sails Away is set in Otawara, Tochigi Prefecture, Watanabe’s hometown. It is shot in black and white, perhaps to be stylistic (I’ve read comparisons to Jim Jarmusch), or perhaps to highlight the plainness of the characters’ lives. The only color footage in the film is news coverage of rallies by anti-nuclear protestors. There is an undercurrent of post-3/11 malaise: An aggressive young man selling handkerchiefs to raise money for a – probably fake – charity and heated discussions about the re-opening of nuclear power plants hovering in the background noise of the TV room are intertwined with scenes of rural life. A boring life for Takashi, with very little in the way of jobs, industry, and especially nightlife. As Takashi, Yuka, and Shohei ride around town, it’s clear that neither the town nor its inhabitants have much direction.
The plot doesn’t have much direction, either. You’d think that Yuka’s appearance would drive Takashi to better himself, but Watanabe doesn’t fall for that obvious plot line. But like Takashi, the film manages to be entertaining, especially when it jumps into its befuddling turning point. Not that the point actually turns, but it does hold comedic value. Takashi decides to take on an odd job with odd consequences, with a sequence of events that leaves the audience unsure if Takashi is dreaming or under the influence of drugs or just insane.
I’m gonna go with all three and say that Watanabe’s first feature film may not be a must-see, but it’s worth seeing.
And the Mud Ship Sails Away (Soshite Dorobune wa Yuku) is part of JAPAN CUTS: Festival of New Japanese Film at Japan Society
Saturday, July 11 at 12:30 p.m.
Tickets: $13/$10 Japan Society members, seniors, and students
To purchase tickets, please visit Japan Society’s website.