Reiko and the Dolphin (Japan, 2019) [OAFF 2020]

Pink film director Shinji Imaoka delivers a downbeat indie drama that has its roots in the 1995 Great Hanshin-Awaji Earthquake. Written at the time of the disaster, Imaoka had just made his debut as a film director and wanted to capture the atmosphere and emotions of the situation but no production company would provide backing. It wasn’t until 2016 when Imaoka received funding from one of his fans that he could initiate the project. He began shooting his script in January 2017, finishing it in time for the 25th anniversary of the disaster. The result is a melancholy film that follows the travails of regular people left reeling from tragic caused by the earthquake.

The story focuses on a couple, Ichiko (Aki Takeda) and her writer husband Tasuke (Hidetoshi Kawaya). They are ordinary adults connected by their daughter Reiko, who adores dolphins. On her birthday they head to an aquarium, the Suma Aqualife Park, before splitting up for the night: Ichiko heads to a hotel for sex while Tasuke looks after the girl and half-heartedly attempts to do some writing. Then the earthquake strikes. The couple lose Reiko in the disaster and this leads to their already frayed ties being sundered. They divorce, Tasuke quits being a writer and becomes a day laborer while Ichiko goes back to live with her mother at the sake shop she runs. Despite living in the same area and seeing mutual acquaintances and relatives, they rarely meet each other, even though their lives go around in circles and they both struggle to accept the loss of Reiko. It takes over two decades of dashed hopes, failed romance and death as the flow of time drags them to some sort of understanding of the tragedy.

It’s heavy going to watch two people trapped in inertia, especially when both are unwittingly repeating the same actions and routines. The rhythm is slow thanks to steady camerawork and calm editing. It’s an aesthetic provides a ruminative manner to an incident-filled story by being resolutely low-key. This restraint reins gives the film the sense that an aching wound needs time to heal. Relief comes at the end when the circular behavior of the characters is broken once Ichiko and Tasuke are able to meet again and confront the past. Arguably, this quiet style and repetition is soporific, even though the film convincingly achieves the impressive feat of showing characters ageing two decades.

On a minimal budget, Imaoka does a remarkable job of following two people over the course of 23 years and showing how the weight of events wear them and their loved-ones down over time. The seasons play a big role in helping reflect the stages of their lives, with the earliest and most hopeful part with Reiko taking place in spring while the downbeat ending occurs in winter. Through make-up and prosthetics, hairstyles and clothing, characters age credibly while the actors convincingly relay the debilitating changes their bodies and minds go through via physicality and vocal control. The one abiding emotion is “gaman”, the Japanese notion of enduring the unbearable. That is very much on display here as lives marked by a tragedy continue on, much reflecting the many lives affected in reality by the earthquake.

Shot in various areas of Kobe that suffered heavily during the disaster, the locations consist of everyday areas like liquor stores and parks, anonymous streets, stations and beaches that can be found in working-class neighborhoods in Nagata Ward and elsewhere in Kobe. The story culminates at Suma Aqualife Park where, after a long separation, the couple go to watch a dolphin show, another example of history repeating. It ends on an open, melancholy note which suggests a pessimistic reading of reality where hurt is inevitable as characters are trapped in a world of mourning, even if they don’t realize it. At best, one can read the ending as life continuing and time healing all wounds, however imperfectly. Yet ghosts remain and even when the characters can finally move forward, Reiko will always haunt them.

Reiko and the Dolphin was shown at the Osaka Asian Film Festival on March 6.