A Road is the debut feature of Daichi Sugimoto, who also produced and stars. Sugimoto is a young tyro still at university but already making a name for himself based on this film, which has toured major international festivals such as Berlin and JAPAN CUTS. It has also won major awards, such as the 2015 PIA Film Festival’s Grand Prize. Taking inspiration from his own life, Sugimoto has made what is essentially a mixture of documentary and drama, asking the questions of at what point on the road to adulthood do we stop trembling with excitement at the prospect of mundane things to instead greet the world with a sigh of indifference, and whether this change in feelings is inevitable?
These are some of the themes gently probed by Sugimoto who opens proceedings rather strikingly with a home movie shot by and featuring a younger version of himself. We see Sugimoto as a young boy enthusiastically telling us about his hunt for lizards in his garden. His face crowds the screen as he meticulously recounts observations he has made while speaking in a breathless semi-serious, scientific way. It is hard not to be charmed by his youthful exuberance and the mismatch of the age of the person and his spoken register. This makes the leap from boyhood to manhood similarly arresting as we encounter Daichi again in the present.
This older Daichi (the director himself) is still living at home with his mother and studying to get into film school with mixed results. His friends like to ride around at night on their motorbikes and talk about their schooldays at parties and this proves attractive to Daichi, far more so than studying English. Despite having a dream, he finds himself mired in uncertainty and ambivalence after past failures and with only a lackadaisical approach to get him out of his rut he needs support. “I don’t think about the future,” he says at one point, a phrase signalling the angst felt by many young people. In the next scene he can be heard saying, “We had more fun in high school,” and viewers get a glimpse of a person who risks wallowing in the past.
This may sound like an anthem for vaguely aimless youth but it’s not. The film evidences firm direction, a low-key energy, and no sequence or scene is miserable in its execution. The use of close-ups and cluttered locations give us the sense of being closeted and needing to escape coupled. The constant talk of the past provides an air of nostalgia and a yearning for more in the pre-film school part of the story. Thankfully, Daichi’s friends and his mother surround him, and from these people he slowly finds inspiration to get into film school and embark on a project to film an episode of his life. This foray into his past will move him on into the future where he can rediscover simple joys and when we get to the mid-way point and Daichi’s adventures through Japan’s urban landscape by bicycle with two friends. The camera work opens up to wider shots and cheerful non-diegetic music and there is a sense of freedom especially with the change in location to the suburbs and a grey and windy beach: the film gracefully bookends itself with, yes, chasing lizards in lush green spaces.
Daichi and his fellow young people aren’t slackers but they are in no hurry to go anywhere with the recession facing them and procrastination dogging their development. As their dreams of childhood recede, they increasingly take comfort from and find inspiration in remembering what it was like to be young from petty classroom feuds to summer days hunting for lizards and talking about who was dating who at a time when it was innocent and playful. They are searching for more emotionally engaging times amid the tedium of life and that is a feeling that something most people in the audience will be able to understand and connect with.
Daichi‘s story is small in scale but effectively told since there is a naturalism that makes everything genuine. That naturalism comes from blurring the line between reality and fiction as the director casts friends and family (including his own mother) as performers and shoots scenes of domesticity in mundane real-world locations which have that important lived-in quality. The bonds he depicts are comforting and relaxing. It is nice to see a mother and son get along so well and watch home movies while people deal with emotional difficulties through talking.
Sugimoto manages to make this a personal story while he sensitively captures a wider story about the reality of youth in Japan, the changes experienced by those who are maturing into adults, and the uncertainty and optimism that they may be able to clutch at. It all feels unforced which helps A Road to achieve an impact that makes it a brilliant calling card for its talented director.
A Road received its North American premiers as part of JAPAN CUTS: Festival of New Japanese Film on July 20.