Inland Sea (Japan/USA, 2018) [SDAFF 2018]

For his “observational film #7,” Kazuhiro Soda continues to examine the space and community of Ushimado, a port town tucked into the Seto Inland Sea in Japan. Ushimado is the setting of Soda’s previous documentary work, Oyster Factory (2015), during the shooting of which he and producer Kiyoko Kashiwagi met eighty-six-year-old fisherman Murata Waichiro, or Wai-chan. Observing another face(t) of Ushimado through Wai-chan and others, Soda soon found himself with enough footage to constitute a whole other film, which ended up being Inland Sea. Though shot in colour like Oyster Factory, the post-production decision to render the film black-and-white (with the exception of the very last shot) injects a hushed yet spirited dignity and poetry to not just the images but above all the interactions between Soda, his camera, and the social actors. While the fact that Ushimado is a fading port town with a dwindling population of the elderly (like Wai-chan and Kumi-san) also immediately injects a melancholy tone to the film, those who remain — or even move there — are not charity cases and should not be defined as such. Soda, guided simply by a deep sense of fellowship, discovers and shares their stories and thereby creates with Inland Sea an indelible portrait of lived experience shaped by its particular location in the world.

Reflecting Soda’s probing yet mellow character and observational method (following his “ten commandments”), a relaxed tone pervades the encounters/conversations that take place as he and his camera meet/accompany one person after another and get to know their pasts and presents. Most memorable about these encounters-conversations, however brief they may be, are the emotional warmth and candour that course through them, on the part of Soda/his camera and the social actors, as if they have known each other for decades. The film’s opening shots already possess this warmth and candour: at a quay, Soda and camera stroll up to eighty-four-year-old Komiyama Kumiko, or Kumi-san, who immediately speaks upon seeing him as if resuming a conversation begun days before. Kumi-san turns out to be a steady stream of candid conversation and information throughout the film and thus functions like a city guide, often recommending sites-sights/people to film. Kumi-chan knows anything and everything about everyone, it seems, and does not hesitate to share it with Soda.

Among Ushimado’s inhabitants, Kumi-san and Wai-chan get the most screen time. Both are engaging personalities through their respective histories with/in Ushimado, on land and at sea. However, the unexpected heart of the film involves Kumi-san near the end when she casually relates her life, past and present, in increasing (heartbreaking) detail, but with no ounce of self-pity or looking for some; she just states things as they are. Compared to Kumi-san, everyone else is practically taciturn, including Wai-chan. But Wai-chan speaks to Soda and his camera as freely as everyone else, in his case: of the difficulties of remaining a fisherman in the present day and of the future day when he can/should retire.

For fishing still constitutes an industry and identity in Ushimado, however small in scale compared to yesteryears. In the course of the film, a structure of weaving back and forth between Ushimado’s community life and the isolated, solitary venture of fishing with Wai-chan on his boat takes shape. The film also encompasses the different stages of Ushimado’s now scaled-back fish industry, from accompanying Wai-chan on his fishing boat throwing out his net, carefully hauling in and disentangling his catch, and selling it at the fish market; to the market that surveys, weighs, and sells his catch; to the fishmongers who buy/prep/clean/package the fish for purchase, principally Koso-san’s shop; to the customers. These scenes carry an affective charge all their own as a glimpse into Ushimado’s former maritime bustle.

Yet imposing a structure on the film goes against its nature. The constellation of stories/experiences shared in the film owes a great deal to Soda’s peripatetic brand of observational filmmaking, which is open to anyone passing by or any detail becoming a potentially new focus and source of experiences/perspectives to discover. When Koso-san is set to make delivery stops to peddle her products, Soda quickly asks if he can accompany her. Though this self-proclaimed ‘late-stage elderly’ (i.e., over seventy-five) is clearly not used to having a camera follow her around (letting the door close behind her on Soda’s face/camera at one stop), accompanying her gives way to meeting other inhabitants. Even more pleasurably peripatetic is the sequence that begins at Koso-san’s shop, where a mother and son get some offal, joining the mother and son as they head home, where the mother cooks the offal and distributes it to two families of stray cats. As Soda continues to speak with the mother and son, a woman passes by carrying some flowers, and they mention a flower contest held at the cemetery. Soda then catches up with the passerby at the cemetery, where he learns of her family in Ushimado, all thirteen generations and all fishermen. Ushimado is truly a bustle of lived experience all its own.

Inland Sea is showing on November 17 at the San Diego Asian Film Festival.