Orphan’s Blues (Japan, 2018) [JAPAN CUTS 2019]

Orphan’s Blues was the winner of the Grand Prize at the Pia Film Festival 2018 and was screened at last year’s Nara and Tokyo international film festivals where it earned some critical buzz. Riho Kudo’s film makes its North American debut at JAPAN CUTS 2019 where its narrative dissonance will either capture imaginations or leave audiences bewildered.

The world seems to be ending. Grim pronouncements about rising temperatures and global warming are made on the radio and it seems to be true considering the sights and sounds of a sun-soaked stifling summer scored by cicadas provide the backdrop for a road trip taken by characters to find a missing man. Initiating this journey is Emma (Yukino Murakami), a young woman who lives a lonely life working as a bookseller on a dusty roadside patch and she is furiously fighting against her fading memory. It is a battle she wages by creating canopies of post-it notes at home and writing in notebooks. Her present-tense thoughts are scattered around but dominated by her memories of her past in an orphanage with her best friend Yang. When she gets a painting of an elephant from Yang (elephants’ never forget), Emma decides to drop everything and search for him.

Using addresses on envelopes, she heads to various locations and encounters people connected to Yang such as Van (Takuro Kamikawa), a fellow orphan who also finds himself also haunted by the man, and Van’s girlfriend Yuri (Nagiko Tsuji). The two are on the run from Yakuza and decide to follow Emma who makes her way into the countryside to an inn run by a Luca (Tamaki Kubose), a mysterious tattooed woman who has a single guest named Aki (Sion Sasaki). It seems like a dead end as Yang isn’t there but the inn proves to be a place of broiling emotions as both Luca and Aki have connections with Yang that run deep and as Emma’s memory further fragments various secrets are revealed that boil over into anger and sorrow as everyone tries to piece together where Yang is. And so we are wrapped up in the mystery of Yang and the tempestuous relationships of the searchers thanks to Kudo’s script and atmospherics, not to mention the performances, which paint a powerful, perhaps malevolent picture of the man’s influence

The film feels like it takes place in a world on the verge of disorder because of the intense heat, which has an apocalyptic feel. There is also the strikingly odd lack of anyone like an authority figure. There are just young adults wandering around, perpetually lost with nothing and nobody to guide them except for a trauma caused by Yang and his absence, as indicated by the character’s sometimes violent interactions, Emma’s sometimes ominous memories, and their permanent physical scars.

Their desire to find Yang becomes all-consuming for audiences as well as Emma and her cohort as we see characters who are so preoccupied by chasing their memories they forget the future until all avenues away from their shared past are closed and they are left to wander around in the shadow of a man nobody will ever really know. Emma’s increasingly fractured perspective brought, on by memory loss, dominates the way the film is presented to audiences as uncertainty is built up through varied narrative framing. Temporal and spatial shifts happen at the drop of a hat and characters jump in and out of moods with little warning

These stylistic choices may be wearing for people with limited patience and it is an uncomfortable ride as we try to make sense of what is going on in all of the gaps of understanding (and there are many gaps) but, thanks to this, we feel a lot like Emma who is losing her bearing on the present and it is this atmosphere of doubt and an ever-tightening grip of a silent desperation and an “end of the world atmosphere” that drives her and the film forward and makes the story unique and compelling until the film finds release in the end. The atmosphere allows a certain leeway for the actors when it comes to their febrile performances which goes from understated to raw in a moment. This won’t be for everyone and it is slow to reveal itself but there is something here that has justified the film winning the Grand Prize at the Pia Film Festival.

As the past and present collapse in on themselves and these broken characters are left floating in uncertainty, we feel it almost viscerally thanks to Kudo’s ambitious storytelling and potent atmospherics. Disorientating and obtuse might be the best two words to describe this film but stick with it as Orphan’s Blues becomes an absorbing trip through memories. 

Orphan’s Blues is showing at JAPAN CUTS 2019 on July 28.