Life Finds a Way (Japan, 2018)

Although many of Japanese indie director Hirobumi Watanabe’s films have mixed his own experiences with the film protagonist’s world, his fifth feature is his most autobiographical to date.

Life Finds a Way opens at a busy crossroad in Tokyo. We hear a rock song with angry, frustrated lyrics being sung. Soon we switch to a stylish countryside coffeeshop, with classical piano tune accompaniment. There is only one customer, a man, drinking coffee and speaking on the phone to what seems to be his producer. He claims to be working on a script. We soon find out that this is not quite the case. The filmmaker, played by director Watanabe himself, spends his time sitting and sleeping by the kotatsu, accompanied by his grandmother (Misao Hirasawa). Watanabe drives around with childhood friend Kurosaki (Takanori Kurosaki), delivering endless monologues about the hardships of being a filmmaker, with Kurosaki offering no comment. Watanabe goes to the library to borrow DVDs for inspiration, fishes with a neighborhood kid, goes to movies, follows World Cup soccer games and calls his Korean cinematographer. No inspiration hits him. This day to day routine is broken by a painful dental appointment and visits to the local clinic, where the doctor scolds him for his bad lifestyle and eating habits. 

Not much happens, but during the film’s timeframe of a few months, the protagonist goes through a professional crisis. He cannot write. He has no funding for his film. He endures hate mail and negative critiques of his film in film journals. His frustration is revealed in his monologues to Kurosaki. Watanabe talks about crowdfunding, film criticism, audiences, and indie film’s screening slots. As a filmmaker who is no longer in his twenties, does not have many avenues to get his frustration out, and poor Kurosaki has to endure it all.

But gradually there is some kind of coda, and the work for the script is done. Here Watanabe switches gears and has a kind of epilogue, where all the actors appearing in the film tell to the camera their favorite film, and their thoughts on what is wrong with the Japanese film industry.

From his first film And the Mud Ship Sails Away (2013), Watanabe developed his own minimalistic style, which centers on a protagonist, and the people nearest him, in the Tochigi prefecture, north of Tokyo. He has always the same staff: his brother Yuji Watanabe selects, composes and also plays part of the music (here the coffee shops piano scene music and other classical takes). Here we also hear the music of the rock band Triple Fire, about whom the protagonist is trying to write a script. Watanabe’s other family members as producers, local Tochigi people appearing as actors, and the filmmaker’s 100-year old grandmother as the grandma of the protagonist. The gorgeous black and white aesthetic is by the South Korean cinematographer Bang Woohyun. Within the film world of Life Finds a Way, he is the cameraman with whom Watanabe discusses the World Cup over the phone. This seemingly diary-like record of the real Watanabe’s life cleverly reveals its fictionality in scenes like this.

What lies behind the film is not only an honest diary about the rocky path of creativity, but also the general state of filmmaking in Japan. In the former, the director throws in ironic bits of dialogue, including making a child say to the camera that she likes Watanabe’s films best – hardly a choice for a little girl. There is also the bigger picture: the state of Japanese film industry, which favors box office films based on a popular manga or television drama, leaving art filmmakers struggling for funding and screening opportunities. The film begins with Watanabe wondering about the morality of the old folk tale about an industrious ant and the fun-loving grasshopper. Maybe, he wonders, Japan needs more entertaining grasshoppers.