Shuichi Okita’s delightful comedy-drama The Woodsman and the Rain begins with its titular 60-year-old lumberjack Katsuhiko (Koji Yakusho) cutting down a tree in the wilderness that surrounds his remote Yamamura village. Katsuhiko is suddenly interrupted by the production assistant of a movie that is shooting in the area, who asks if the woodcutter can keep the noise down so that the sound recording of the scene that it is currently being filmed is not disturbed. Katsuhiko obliges and instead does some pining as he is the kind of workhorse who prefers to make the most of his shift. Although he is good friends with his co-workers, Katsuhiko is recently widowed and his relationship with his directionless son (Kora Kengo) is going through a rough patch as his offspring wants to leave the village for the big city. Initially roped into the production to scout suitable locations, Katsuhiko soon finds himself deeply involved in the making of ‘Utopia’, a low-budget horror film about a zombie apocalypse. He portrays a member of the living dead in a key scene and forms an unlikely friendship with the rookie director, Koichi (Shun Oguri), who makes up for what he lacks in self-confidence with an endless supply of ideas, even if most of them should be consigned to development hell. Koichi becomes more personally invested in ‘Utopia’ after watching dailies of his performance, with his enthusiasm rubbing off on the local community, who generously pitch-in to help Koichi overcome various problems and wrap on schedule.
With its intertwined study of friendship and filmmaking, The Woodsman and the Rain is a delicate blend of two distinct sub-genres: the rural drama and the film-within-a-film. Deliberately paced and perfectly judged throughout, it combines observations on human nature with an insider perspective on the making of low-budget cinema, with these two points of interest frequently intersecting as Koichi encounters unanticipated production obstacles. Whether the young director is a genuine pioneer of genre storytelling, or simply spending the shoestring budget on incoherent nonsense that will have to be salvaged by a skilled editor, is never revealed, but The Woodsman and the Rain is a film about the magic of the process rather than the critical or public response to the end result. Aficionados of low-budget Japanese splatter cinema, particularly V-Cinema (made-for-video) horror items or the output of exploitation factory Sushi Typhoon, will appreciate the behind-the-scenes moments as Koichi struggles to realise his vision with limited resources. Scenes intended to illustrate a zombie outbreak must be achieved with a small number of extras, and ordinary countryside is used to evoke an end-of-the-world landscape. One of the highlights is a tensely amusing scene in which Koichi must ask multiple takes of a veteran actor, clearly a performer of some industrial standing who has been brought in for one day of shooting in exchange for a quick pay-day: Koichi requests different line readings, potentially annoying the stern character player, but his persistence to get exactly what he wants ultimately wins the actor’s respect.
This is only the second feature by Okita following his cooking comedy The Chef of South Polar (2009), yet the unhurried manner with which he develops relationships already shows signs of a master at work. Adapted by Okita and Fumio Moriya from a novel by Jun Nishimura, the screenplay is a gift to its cast, who reciprocate the gesture with nuanced performances. Oguri displays an offbeat charm not even hinted at by the pin-up posturing of Crows Zero (2007), while Yakusho’s outwardly gruff woodsman is the perfect anchor for a film that mixes simple rural life with the imaginative, if sometimes calamitous, world of moviemaking. Yakusho gradually becomes enamoured with the process while maintaining the level-headed outlook of someone who works with the natural elements: the title refers to Katsuhiko’s ability to predict a heavy downpour and, while the emphasis is on the low-key interplay between the main characters, Okita also celebrates the mountainous setting, which has a beauty that the visiting film crew can only begin to appreciate. Although largely gentle in tone, The Woodsman and the Rain is not afraid of exploring anxieties or realities, as seen when Yakusho lambasts his layabout son, or when Koichi is crippled by indecision due to his lack of experience behind the camera. It is such expressions of frustration that make the eventual triumphs of these characters much more rewarding than if Okita just went down the middle of the road and contribute to The Woodsman and the Rain being a life-affirming treat.
The Woodsman and the Rain is released on UK DVD and Blu-Ray on January 28, 2013 via Third Window Films: