Following the Great East Japan Earthquake of 2011, director Masakazu Sugita put into production a film dedicated to the orphans left behind after natural disasters. It was something he had long planned since he himself was a survivor of the 1995 Great Hanshin Earthquake and was only 14- years old at the time. The result is Joy of Man’s Desiring, a gentle yet deeply powerful human drama which received Special Mention at the 64th Berlin International Film Festival, as well as being nominated for the Best First Feature Award in 2014.
The story revolves around two siblings, twelve-year-old Haruna (Ayane Omori) and her brother, five-year-old Shota (Riku Ohishi). When an earthquake strikes their town, their house collapses and buries their family alive. Haruna was able to escape but was unable to save her parents while Shota survived by some miracle.
The extended family rallies around the children briefly at the funeral but disagree over how to handle their care. An aunt named Masako (Naoka Yoshimoto) steps up and takes the children in. Devastated by the loss of her sister, she offers them a safe home on an island with her family but Haruna and Shota find it hard to fit in not least because Shota doesn’t know that their parents are dead. Nobody can bare to tell him the truth and Haruna struggles with this.
The film quietly documents the acclimatisation of the children to their new reality and their new environment. Shot in Hirado and Unzen city, Nagasaki Prefecture, these are idyllic location where the quiet streets are orderly and clean, doors are left unlocked and everyone has a vegetable patch and access to beautiful green spaces and a beach. It seems like the perfect place to recover but while the children are outwardly fine there is emotional trauma they have not been allowed to process, something that the adults have failed to address.
Whether out of forgetfulness or a misguided sense of care, the older characters gloss over what the kids feel. They are too disconnected having not experienced the tragedy first-hand or they have their own grief to come to terms with. Duty of care for many simply means housing Haruna and Shota somewhere but the protracted negotiations over who takes responsibility and the instability the children bring to their new home is quietly observed with guilt by Haruna, a feeling adding to an increasingly crushing guilt over not being able to tell Shota the truth and not being able to save their parents.
This guilt eats away at her. While little Shota bubbles away with cheeriness and the expectation that they will reunite with their parents soon, his every question and spoken hope pricks the conscience of Haruna who keeps a tight lid on her emotions. Her experience in the disaster, told in short, simple scenes where she is searching amongst the rubble of her home, reoccur in flashbacks later, nightmares that shows the powerlessness of these children and the feeling of being lost and her emotional scars. This gives the simple narrative its depth and informs the sudden emotional violence in a heart-breaking yet hopeful set of final sequences.
The film is a simple tale with unfussy, minamilist direction which is part of what makes it so special because Sugita shows he has fantastic control over the emotional beats of the story and gets fine performances from his child actors.
There are long passages without dialogue, just ambient sound of the wind blowing and the sea’s waves crashing against a cliff. When words are spoken, they have massive power and their true intent and emotion are plain to hear. The small town landscape and the domesticity of Masako’s home is captured with simple framing and long sequences that puts the actors at the centre and leave free audiences to observe the facial expressions and body-language of this fine cast – the infinite compassion Haruna and Shota have for each other, the aunt’s concern and gradual tiredness over strained family dynamics etched on her face. The gentle zooms on people’s faces are massively effective in this controlled environment especially as they fully display and subtly highlight Ayane Omori, Riku Ohishi, and Naoko Yoshimoto who give powerful performances that display their inner emotions.
Haruna’s journey is what the film follows, her isolation fuelled by her grief and her guilt over lying to Shota. Ayane Omori shows a stunning maturity and depth to her character with perfect stillness that shows her self-control, the way she shows her characters observant nature, and her gradual withdrawal from others and her pain over her lies to Shota. When she breaks with anger and grief, it is scary and heartbreaking. She is the guardian to Riku Ohishi’s character and he brings a refreshing innocence which acts like ballast for his co-star. His pure joy, his loyalty to his sister and the care he shows to her, gently patting her when she is ill and playing with her, all of it speak volumes. There is a softness present in young boys that is rarely given screen time in films that is on display here and it is greatly affecting not least because it cements the emotional bond between himself and Haruna.
The film begins and ends ominously in water but there is a light that holds the darkness back. Maybe it’s the love of their parents or their natural resilience, but what secures them is their love for each other. You get the sense that even if the world forgets about their pain, they will be able to overcome it together. The close-ups on their faces are precious in delivering that bond the actors show with perfection in this simple yet touching drama that will surely move audiences.
Joy of Man’s Desiring is part of the Japan Foundation Film Touring Programme 2018 which is showing at selected UK venues from February 2 to March 28.