Kushina, what will you be (Japan, 2018) [OAFF 2018]

Moët Hayami’s Kushina received its world premiere at the Osaka Asian Film Festival 2018 where it won the JAPAN CUTS award, an accolade given to films that display a unique vision. It was a well-deserved win because this tale of three women fighting over the fate of a pure girl is put together with such profound sensitivity and dedication that it creates a world wholly different from what many people will expect from Japanese cinema.

Deep in the mountains, hidden in a forest, there is a village where only women live. A sanctuary for those who wandered into the forest intending to commit suicide after the tragedies endured in their lives became too much to bear, it was established in an abandoned village by stern and strong headwoman Onikuma (Miyuki Ono) She had fled society with her daughter, Kagu (Tomona Hirota), who was 14-years-old and pregnant with the titular Kushina at the time. 14 years on and Kushina (Ikumi Satake) is the youngest person in a village made up of mostly ageing ladies who have discarded their old lives and names. They survive off the land and harvest cannabis to sell to the outside world. This contact is mediated by Onikuma, who takes on all manner of responsibilities in order to protect the place and those who dwell in it, especially her innocent and unsophisticated granddaughter.

All is seemingly well until an anthropologist named Soko Kazano (Yayoi Inamoto) and her male assistant Keita Harada (Suguru Onuma) discover this concealed community. Their presence causes disruptions as Soko feels attracted to some aspect of Kushina who is intrigued by the new world that the outsiders represent. This starts a battle between Onikuma and Kagu, who is concerned about her daughter Kushina’s upbringing and future.

Kushina is a low-budget film but you would never guess it considering how Hayami enraptures the audience in a new, strongly defined world. Through this gently paced story, Hayami creates a community and the characters with conviction that it is an absolute pleasure to experience.

Powerful emotions are evoked in every scene. There is a real sense of unique place and shared intimacy in the village that is uncovered. The main location feels like a once-dilapidated village brought back to life by the women thanks to traditional buildings and homely found objects being used to create the space. It is also at one with the forest, a verdant natural location with natural greens, reds, and blues that dazzle the eye and feels relaxing when coupled with the sound of water flowing and the wind. It suggests good health and merriment. This is contrasted with the world the women have fled. A foray into the city with Onikuma brings a stunning difference. We see dirty and artificial locations from smoke spewing factories to convenience stores where a comparatively sickly tinge is afforded thanks to the colour-grading and lighting, while the harsh noises which are jarring. Predatory men are also present and you understand the threat Onikuma protects her community from.

These strong visual contrasts are thematically necessary to show the dangers of the world Onikuma sees and the sanctuary of the village. Shot design is always strongly defined by some element, whether it is a close-up on Onikuma’s fierce face or some aspect of scene composition which places Kushina under the adoring gaze of the camera for audiences to feel a connection with her. Every scene feels as lovingly crafted as a highly detailed frame from a graphic novel.

This is the perfect space for the drama to emerge. The obvious problems faced by the characters cut off from the world come from the intrusion of outsiders since there is some sexual tension from Keita as a man who could provide children to a number of women and Soko revealing the village as well as influencing Kushina. However, Keita is more a bystander than a catalyst for change and the drama returns to the reality of the women as tensions between them regarding the direction of Kushina’s future are explored.

Kushina is portrayed as a pure child untainted by the world by Satake, who is subject to the camera’s adoring gaze. Multiple overhead shots of Kushina basking in the sun, asleep with her walkman clutched in her hands, enjoying the sensation of the wind, everything puts us in a position where the viewer is asked to feel protective of her, just like Onikuma, Kagu and Soko.

Her presence makes the drama that arises between Soko, Kagu and Onikuma work emotionally although it is sometimes obscure in backstory and motivation since subtlety is favoured – the glimpse of religious imagery and a stray comment – but as it increasingly comes to light, conflict is organically developed and we always understand that the focal point is Kushina, a child raised in a state of innocence. With every scene it feels more potent and urgent as we are drawn into the personalities of the characters and hints of backstories are drawn out of these distinctively different characters.

Soko is a thoroughly modern woman driven by contradictory emotions of religion and reason while Kagu is seemingly unsophisticated and sullen but radiates strength, uncertainty and a longing for her daughter to grow, even if that means it is away from the village. Contrasted against them is Onikuma, the tall and fierce lady with kohl-rimmed eyes and an almost constant frown who is scary as an implacable character determined to protect those closest to her even if it is at her own expense.

What is certain is that there is a tragic element to the way that she and Kagu have had to be parents by sacrificing normality and happiness to look after those they care the most about, something brought about by the world. They are unhappy but dedicated and one can never fault their loyalty even if it twists them into difficult situations ripe for drama. In considering sacrifice, Kushina feels close to Shohei Imamura’s rendition of The Ballad of Narayama (1983) and the fact that it makes one think of that film is an indication of how much quality is on display here.

The film challenges the viewer to consider whether such a space would really work and whether Kushina should remain there as we enter into the bonds of this village and, to a certain extent, understand complex characters with hopes and dreams. We empathise with everyone and the ending has a heartbreaking quality – especially the post-credit sequence where we hear what Kushina listens to on her Walkman.

People familiar with Japanese cinema screened in the West, usually typified by miserablist tales of wayward youth, adaptations of action and teen manga, or outrageous horror, will be completely swept away by this aurally and visually enchanting film. There is something magical to proceedings thanks to Hayami’s incredibly strong and focussed vision in which mise-en-scène is used to distinctive effect. So much thought has gone into the workings of the community, the people inside it, their contact with the outside world, and the revealing of tensions within the headwoman’s family over the future of Kushina that it gives the film a tremendous power that simply has to be experienced.

Kushina, what will you be was shown at the Osaka Asian Film Festival on March 14 and 15.