There is diversity to Japan that would surprise people but when one considers it is an archipelago which consists of over 6,000 islands, of which 430 are inhabited with a diverse mix of people, most famously the Ainu in Hokkaido and the Ryukyu of Okinawa, it makes sense. Each region in Japan has its own unique custom, culinary dish, and colloquialisms and some places can be so cut-off from the mainland or under-explored that they have traditions that are unheard of even to Japanese which is what this film uses to give new life to the dysfunctional family reunion narrative.
Born Bone Born was written and directed by Toshiyuki Teruya, perhaps better known as Gori from comedy trio Garage Sale. He developed this feature from his award-winning 2016 short film to allow audiences to experience the unique and increasingly rare Okinawan ceremony of Senkotsu, a ritual for families to remember a person who has passed away through recovering the mummified body around five years after their internment and washing their bones in seawater or sake. This ceremony acknowledges the passage of life from the dead to the living and the film uses it to show how a much-loved matriarch has the power to unite her family even in her death.
The film takes place in Aguni, a small island that lies to the west of the Okinawa. It is effectively village community where time passes slowly and it is here that Senkotsu is still performed even though it is a tradition that has largely died out on other islands. The Shinjo family is reuniting for the first time since the death of the mother Emiko (Mariko Tsutsui) five years ago but all is not well. Yuko Shinjo (Ayame Misaki) has taken a vacation from her job as a hairdresser in Nagoya to head home. She is nine-months pregnant and alone. Her father Nobutsuna (Eiji Okuda) has been left devastated by Emiko’s death and is quietly nursing his grief with alcohol while living alone at the family home. Yuko’s argumentative older brother Tsuyoshi (Michitaka Tsutsui) has arrived without his wife and children who he insists will join him later.
As everyone drifts to the family home, we see each of the three main characters is effectively an island surrounded by a reef of mourning and resentment over family politics which has caused them to make mistakes in the five years since they were last together. These issues are gradually revealed as the narrative tide allows arguments to wash in during scenes of family gatherings before receding and allowing people more introspective moments when they examine the past and try to figure out the flow of their future. Rumours may swirl around the family but a charming collection of friends and relatives rally round each person who faces their hardship head on. Soon, emotional storms pass and bridges are built as people work through their problems and grief. This is reflected in the actors physicality, the defensive and angry body-language decreasing, their closeness increasing, until they are reunited in saying goodbye to Emiko and welcoming in a new life in the most intimate ways possible. As serious as this sounds, the film chooses to chart a narrative course through comedy to reach its resolution.
The weather is almost always sunny and the landscape beautiful as cliffs and beaches provide a backdrop for small houses surrounded by lush vegetation. The slow pace of life on the island influences the rhythm of the film which is laid-back and allows the charming characteristics of people and places to float to the surface. Yuko’s pregnancy forms a lot of the drama and comedy as everyone reacts differently. Misaki brings a layered performance while also acting as an emotional conduit for others to work from, especially Tsutsui as Tsuyoshi who visibly softens as he swallows his resentment and admits his own problems. Yuko’s character also allows the introduction of the baby’s father, Ryoji, a good-natured goofball with a fashion-sense from the 70s and a much too casual way of speaking. He may be from mainland Japan but he’s definitely not sophisticated. He does act as a surrogate for the audience, asking questions about Senkotsu and reacting as many might, and he neatly fits into the Shinjo tradition of strong women choosing nice guys to marry. This is best exemplified by the hilariously dominant and feisty Aunt Nobuko (Yoko Oshima). While funny, her behaviour is an expression of love and she keeps a firm hand on the emotional tiller to steer the family into more positive currents.
There is a natural flow to the film which builds up to a strong denouement as people start sailing in the same direction. The Senkotsu sequence itself is treated with respect and shows the love and duty involved and the way people are able to send off the dead. Teruya doesn’t flinch from showing it and we see a family activity both special and normal. Audiences get the pleasure of experiencing a unique custom from Okinawa, understanding its power, and seeing people united together through it. Born Bone Born is a wonderful film.
Borne Borne Borne is showing on July 21 at JAPAN CUTS.