Naomi Kawase’s Still the Water accomplishes something rare: a romance about young people that is clearly targeted to a more sophisticated adult audience that doesn’t rely on melodramatic tropes. The nuanced characters, verdant natural scenery and rich themes could make this a film worth watching, but it is marred by pacing issues. I wouldn’t blame you if you checked your watch now and again.
Still the Water is a first love story, although I admit that for most of he film it doesn’t play like one I’ve seen before. When it opens, the two potential lovers are present when a corpse is discovered and whatever friendship-to-romance may have been developing between Kaito (Nijirô Murakami) and Kyôko (Jun Yoshinaga) is put on hold for 100 minutes. Kaito at 16 or 17, just no longer seems interested in having a girlfriend even though everyone thinks he should have one, and thinks that Kyôko would be a good match for him. That mysterious, lifeless body, drown in the water and floating back to shore, has affected him, and we spend most of the movie trying to figure out why. No matter how many green lights he is given, he just won’t step forward, or explain what’s eating him. The lead male is largely silent throughout the film, but his story has a lot to say about about life, sex, love, death, transitions, healing and family…which is what Still the Water is broadly about. A simple love story it refuses to be.
Director and writer Naomi Kawase takes us on a journey to the Amami Archipelago for Still the Water, about as rural and remote as one can be in Japan. Kaito has moved to the island from Tokyo with his divorced mother, Misaki (Makiko Watanabe). Kyôko is a native to the island and lives surrounded by relatives. As much as the story revolves around the young pair, Kawase expands the narrative to include their contrasting family situations: one urban and largely dissolved, the other rural and extended. There are two deaths in the movie that impact both families – the corpse at the beginning and Kyôko’s mother in the middle, the point of which seems to be to relay a message that in order to move forward through the stages of life, one needs to get a handle on death and belief. With one corpse properly mourned and seen off and the other largely forgotten, the leads end up inhabiting different emotional spaces throughout the film. It is this disconnect and Kaito’s anxiety about the unknown that stalls the couple endlessly.
Or maybe it just seems like they are endlessly stalled because Kawase has decided to fill the movie with as much detail about the lives of Amami islanders that she can get away with.
Still the Water is not a bad film as far as philosophical family dramas go. With themes like death and inter-generational communication, it is definitely aimed at adult audiences, even though the leads are in their teens. These aren’t star-crossed lovers or fated soul mates or whatever brings true love out in the open in movies these days. They are humans. But the film does start to suffer from “remote lead” syndrome after awhile and a seemingly unending discourse on nature.
I wanted to connect with Kaito, but he just won’t let me and as the movie went on, I struggled to keep interested in the film. In the beginning, Kaito’s lack of interest in sex or even a date creates a great deal of tension as the audience doesn’t understand the reasons behind it. An adolescent male who doesn’t seem to want a sex life is mysterious, when you get right down to it. Is he not ready? Perhaps he’s gay? Is he avoiding the future? Is he a representative of a contemporary Japanese concern with asexual males – the emergence of “grasseaters“, so to speak? We don’t know and those questions can keep us interested, but it takes too long to get to the payoff. Murakami is very good in a role that demands nothing more than not fully interacting with anyone, although when he suddenly lets Kaito’s anger fly, we are shocked that he can be so forceful. His moment of anger is stunning, and rich, but he reveals his inner life with such moral clarity at that moment that we are left to wonder why he didn’t do so 20 minutes earlier when his broodiness was still beguiling.
I won’t reveal Kaito’s motives, since doing so would pretty much spoil the movie (he has very good motives!). But the reason he couldn’t move forward earlier is that the script calls for a meandering anthropological study of the beliefs and rituals of Amami natives – a sacrifice here (animals are definitely harmed in this film, but I wasn’t too bothered by that), a traditional folk song there, an explanation of shamanism someplace else – that inserts the theme of “belief in the face of uncertainty” and the “interconnection of generations” into the film forcefully, but creates pacing issues. Those details also completely overwhelm Kyôko’s character development, since they are inserted into her family’s story, to the point where we forget that she is a lead character in the story. She never develops – people just tell her things.
I found the rituals and folk music fascinating – that’s my background – but I can completely understand audience members tuning out while waiting for active character development and payoffs that don’t materialize very quickly. Those scenes of learning experiences and shots of natural forces representing inner lives probably add 40 minutes to the film’s length. It is a beautiful film to watch, and cinematographer Yutaka Yamazaki has captured the islands impeccably, but you won’t notice that if you find yourself closing your eyes and dozing off.