A contender for last year’s Palme d’Or – if not the most deserving, according to its modest director – Naomi Kawase’s Still the Water (2014) is a fluid, dreamlike tone poem of mothers and fathers, death and continuance. Violent waves crash on the shore of the film’s Japanese island, sweeping to land the tattooed corpse of an unknown man. This event will subtly impact on the lives of two young teenagers who live nearby. Kyoko (Jun Yoshinaga) is a courageous young girl with a penchant for going swimming in her school uniform, even though the beaches are closed because of the discovery of the body. She, meanwhile, is gradually falling in love with the bashful, elusive Kaito (Nijiro Murakami).
Kaito isn’t so enamoured with the sea, refusing to learn to surf or to even swim in it “because it’s sticky,” which doesn’t bode well for Kyoko’s awakening sexuality. He rides his bike while she stands behind on the spokes, leaning against him as they rush past the ocean and the trees. Already close, they’re increasingly in need of each other as problems at home worsen. Kaito’s parents are divorced: his father runs a tattoo parlour in Tokyo while his mother has a new (though never seen) boyfriend. She works late a lot at the restaurant and leaves Kaito to his own devices as he becomes increasingly lost, lonely and distraught. Kyoko’s situation is worse still. Her beloved mother (Miyuki Matsuda) is dying and wishes to be brought home to her family, while her father (Fujio Tokita) is unable to console his daughter.
This is a culture with its own distinct relationship with death. We’re twice presented with the close-up slaughter of a goat as if to mark this difference (though it’s the one moment of Kawase’s film that feels unnecessarily provocative). The reason for the ritual – or indeed even if it is a ritual – is never clear. The youngsters, meanwhile, don’t just blindly accept the philosophy of their elders. When Kyoko is comforted by her grandmother, who tells her that her mother’s soul will be a part of her, Kyoko responds quite reasonably: “That’s not enough.” Neither is Kaito fully resigned to his life on the island. He visits his father reveals a convincing love of urban existence: “It’s so full.” The heart of Still the Water, however, lies in an extended and incredibly moving scene in which family and friends gather around Kyoko’s mother’s death bed to sing, dance and encourage her. Simply put, it has to be one of the most life-affirming death scenes of recent years.
There’s such an incredible sense of love and compassion in the room at this point, whilst never losing sight of the pain that Kyoko feels as she grasps her mother’s hand and tries somehow to eke out her last moments. Her father drops his jokes for one second to tell them plainly what the loss means to him in a truly captivating monologue. With its woozy voiceover and fascination with the beauty and violence of nature, Kawase’s film most resembles the works of Terrence Malick. (A twisting tree in Kyoko’s back garden is a literal tree of life.) Yet, whereas Malick’s camera hyperactively seeks, glimpses and endeavours to capture “the wonder”, Kawase gazes at it, confident that it’s within her grasp. Still the Water’s young couple will begin life again, embodying their parents, their ancestors and generating the people to come. “Young people should be brave,” an old man tells them. “Leave us elders to pick up the pieces.”
John Bleasdale | @drjonty