Kontora (Japan, 2019) [JAPAN CUTS 2020]

An isolated teenage girl enduring adolescent turmoil amidst a fractured family’s feud finds that the arrival of a mysterious mute man in her small town allows her to communicate with others. This is the set-up for Anshul Chauhan’s sophomore feature following his woman-on-the-verge-of-a-breakdown indie drama Bad Poetry Tokyo (2017). With its raw performance from its lead actress,generation-spanning story and striking look, Kontora is not only distinct from Chauhan’s debut feature but also Japanese youth films that have depicted contemporary girlhood.

Rebellious high schooler Sora (Wan Marui) is left devastated when her beloved grandfather dies. Already emotionally adrift and angry after the death of her mother, this loss sends her reeling but his World War II diary offers a fascinating document as well as hints of “treasure” buried somewhere in a nearby forest. This gives her some much-needed motivation in her directionless life. However, things get complicated when her emotionally distant father (Taichi Yamada) gets into a conflict over the family home with his rich cousin (Takuzo Shimizu) at a party. A hurried escape from the avaricious factory-owner leads to a fateful “meeting” with a mysterious vagrant (Hidemasa Mase) who says nothing and perpetually walks backwards. His strange, sudden appearance signals a change in Sora’s life that might allow her to open up about what she feels. She makes him become a member of her family and he gets involved in the search for a treasure which takes on an unexpected but important form.

To tell this story, Chauhan travelled to Seki city on a minimal budget and worked intensely over 10 days with a loyal crew and a cast consisting of newcomers and stage performers. Their improvisational efforts have produced high tension scenes as each actor pulls out a performance that aches with a sincerity, imbuing their characters with credible motivations and behavior. As such, the viewer gets caught up in the shifting family dynamics.

From the moment we meet Sora, we recognize how teenage frustration, the limited horizons of her small town and a lack of parental guidance shape her behavior. Making her movie debut as Sora, Marui gives a tremendously layered performance as she cycles through various emotions, giving a brave and realistic portrayal of a teen fighting furiously against the inertia of small town life as she strives to get out. She plays off well against Taichi Yamada, who portrays a father unable to articulate his own worries and loss of connection to others until placed in this strange situation. As the mute, Mase is sometimes menacing and mysterious in his unreadable nature, but also funny as his unconventional behavior shakes people out of their assumed role, even if his character seems to have been delivered by providence.

Just as interesting is how Sora’s story is neatly wrapped up in the use of the diary, which features text made up from actual letters written by kamikaze pilots and illustrations by Mase. Sora finds an echo in her grandfather’s teenage thoughts from the past, the trauma he suffered in the military as well as the confusion of adolescent desires and, in some way, it offers a much-needed voice from the older generation that allows her to reflect upon herself. Chauha’s effectively links contemporary teenage life to history while allowing the move fitfully between mystery and family intimacy. Yet it also has a sense of purpose so feels absorbing as these elements comes together.

Adding to the sense that this film is a nod to the wartime generation, it is shot in magisterial black and white by cinematographer Max Golomidov. As such, the drama is brought to the screen beautifully with the composition of each scene being exquisite while delivering context that helps color in the characters. This is a unique coming-of-age tale where history and reality meet in elegiac fashion.

Kontara is streaming as part of JAPAN CUTS: Festival of New Japanese Film from July 17-30.