Perhaps it is because of his emerging Western approach to painting, escaping the cruel clutches of Orientalism, but the work of Morikazu Kumagai is largely unknown in the West despite enjoying varying degrees of success in his own country. A style which took a long time routed in realism and female nudes, the distinctive flatness and bright colours became Kumagai’s reflection of the closing world around him: a world contained within the microcosm of the garden surrounding his home. Instead of making the life of this recluse the subject of his film, Shuichi Okita instead focuses on a solitary day caught in the artist’s twilight years in the 1970s; it is a day brought lovingly and playfully to life in Mori, The Artist’s Habitat.
At the age of ninety-four, Mori has spent the last thirty years living a hermit’s life within his home, spending each day quietly observing the rituals of the other inhabitants within his garden – the subjects of his artwork – whilst living harmoniously with Hideko, his wife of fifty years. Motionless amongst the myriad of trees and plants, his way of life has slowed down to a halt as the birds and insects he shares his life with; he regularly burns garbage and his frequented by an array of human visitors, all of whom are captivated not just by his work but by his entire demeanour and outlook, including a photographer and his assistant, an innkeeper, and his neighbours. Also on this day, he is visited upon by a menacing owner of condo apartments, and is offered the Order of Culture by the Emperor of Japan.
Removed from the frenzied economic boom of 1970s Japan, the world in which Mori (Tsutomu Yamazaki) seems tranquil and still on the surface, but it comes with its own frenzy: the never-ending influx of visitors who have to book their time in his residence; the ceaseless scuttling of the abundant wildlife; the birdsongs who pierce through the silence like the constant chatter taking place not far beyond the physical boundaries. Unlike the outside world time does stand still here, slowing down to a meditative yet glacial pace where the concerns of Ikebukuro and the surrounding Tokyo rush on by. It is a simplicity emphasised by Okita’s meticulous direction and script – it is a minimalist story at heart with not much of a plot – allowing his stellar cast to embody the lives penetrating this slowly crafted ecosystem. It is just as fascinating watching the wonder spread across the faces of photographer Fujita (Ryo Kase) and his naïve assistant Kajima (Kaito Yoshimura) witnessing Mori’s contemplative observation of the rock as it is for us to do the same. Within these simple acts is where the magic of this film truly come alive.
Yamazaki’s portrayal of the artist as an old man is uncanny and endearing, successfully tapping into the quirks and eccentricities of Mori and embodying them for all to see. He brings a loving and charming quality to the character which makes him such a delight to experience. Mythologising Kumagai further are the whimsical attitudes of those he encounters: Hiroshi Mikami’s Strange Man (as he is listed in AsianWiki) dismissal of Mori’s talents being “wasted” on a stranger is fleeting but bold; and Ken Mitsuishi’s innkeeper – who has travelled miles by way of Shinkansen, a technological advance unbeknownst to the artist, to get a sign painted – cannot help but become vulnerable in his presence. Perhaps, however, it is the sudden openness of Munetaka Aoki’s foreman regarding his child’s painting which cements the wisdom he imbues. But above all, the rapport between Yamazaki and Koreeda darling Kirin Kiki as his wife ultimately humanises this figure with a heart-warming touch; watching the two as they play go evokes a tender sweetness just as warm as the tonal palette, their reflective conversation about repeating their lives makes for a touching moment before the shattering climax rolls onto the screen.
Accompanying all this is Yuta Tsukinaga’s gorgeous cinematography, mirroring the minutiae of Mori’s home and the slow pace life takes here. Punctuated with nature documentary scenes of his subjects, the sheer magnitude of the artist’s habitat is felt to be larger than it actually is. Even in the more crowded scenes – the dinner scene with the foreman and his workforce springs to mind – Tsukinaga successfully draws us in, bursting the limits of the set at the seams and transforms the quiet secluded shelter into an uproarious epicentre of celebration and jovial festivity. Enlarging this world whilst largely negating the outside, except to show the level of protest against the condo developments and in a daring escape by Mori halted by a frowning child, only serves to place us at the centre of the artist’s cosmos.
Shuichi Okita has established himself as a contemporary delight as far as bringing these eccentric characters to life especially with the phenomenal The Story of Yonosuke (2013); his latest venture only strengthens his craft further. A single day has never been so captivating and, with his cast perfectly bringing this world to life, so thoroughly lovable.
Mori, The Artist’s Habitat is showing on July 26 at JAPAN CUTS.