The Sower (Japan, 2016) [OAFF 2018]

Most movies inspired by artists tend to be biographical, such as Lust for Life (1956), which stars Kirk Douglas as Vincent Van Gogh. Yosuke Takeuchi’s independent feature The Sower takes inspiration from that famous and tragic artist who lived with a naive but passionate connection with the world and suffered for it.

Mitsuo (Kentaro Kishi), the lead character here, fixates on sunflowers, wears a hat and bears a beard that is similar to the genius who roamed the fields of Provence, but Mitsuo’s story finds itself connected to the efforts made by farmers and volunteers to plant sunflowers across swathes of Fukushima prefecture to help the soil absorb radiation leaked from the region’s damaged nuclear power plant but have they absorbed the spirits of those taken away? Mitsuo is the titular “Sower”, a man who believes they have.

Mitsuo was one of those brave souls who answered the call for volunteers to clear out the debris left behind by the Tohoku Earthquake and Tsunami. The strain of the task proved to be too much and he spent three years in psychiatric care. Upon his release, Mitsuo finds solace when he is warmly welcomed into the home of his younger brother Yuta (Tomomitsu Adachi) and meets his sister-in-law Yoko (Arisa Nakajima) and two nieces, the elementary school age Chie (Suzuno Takenaka) and Itsuki (Ichika Takeuchi), a three-year-old with down-syndrome. This sweet moment of family bonding is shattered by tragedy when the two girls are left in Mitsuo’s care and Itsuki dies in an accident. Even though he had no direct involvement in the incident, Mitsuo is blamed and he must deal with the burden of guilt and the struggle for atonement while Chie suffers equally as much over whether to tell the truth of what happened or not…

This slow-burn drama is something of a revelation. Considering it is Takeuchi’s debut feature film, it is an amazing achievement since it features so much grace and emotion, where the seed of one act blooms into a flower of tragedy and acceptance that it radiates with profound emotions in such a visceral and beautiful and heartfelt way.

The film hinges upon the idea of guilt and grief warping both Mitsuo and Chie and the people around them, trapping everyone in a negative space which brings out the worst in people and, for those too naive to understand what is happening, it is better to remain silent than open up. This is nothing new. Chie is the subject of bullying and Mitsuo has seen horrific things in Fukushima as made clear in the opening, but neither verbalises it, her isolation from the class and his haggard look saying a lot more. How to tell such things to others? It’s a difficult struggle.

Any attempt to tell the truth about what happened to Itsuki is handicapped by people’s prejudices towards those with mental health issues, protectiveness over children, and grudges held over perceived wrongdoing in the past. All of these other stories bloom around the central plot because family, the one place that should be a refuge, becomes a minefield of broiling emotions, the implications and consequences of which rise organically with every story twist while also offering a strong social commentary.

Takeuchi is an artist who studied painting in Paris, which is where he was inspired by Van Gogh. However his own story has become part of this film such as a niece with special needs taking on the role of Itsuki and his thoughts on how society treats people who are different. The hesitation to love those who have Down syndrome, the fear of genetic contamination and lack of understanding for mental health issues, they are all present in the minds of characters. They verbalise these contentious issues in dialogue that could be heard in everyday life and we see how wrong it is as we come to understand the suffering of Mitsuo and Chie who are tragically too naive to cope and it is harrowing stuff to watch them be buffeted around by the emotions of their community.

The acting and mise-en-scene are naturalistic allowing us to enter the conflict. Early scenes are documentary-like with fast editing at the start that helps builds up character, setting, and, tension until the horrific moment occurs and then the film slows down, using many extended sequences to locate the character in their environment, little Chie avoiding others by being alone while Mitsuo is shambling around with a shell-shocked look when he isn’t communing with nature, sowing seeds with fervour as an act of atonement.

Takeuchi favours scenes full of close-ups to show the aftermath of every emotional encounter such as when adults fight over Chie or when people openly talk about Mitsuo’s mental health issues and others must listen uncomfortably. These close-ups are even more powerful tracking the increasingly withdrawn and sullen visages presented by Chie and Mitsuo and the anger of Yoko and Yuta as they navigate how to deal with the conflicts that blossom. The best one has to be at the start when Mitsuo and Chie speak about the sunflowers in Fukushima and their supernatural aspects. Their connection is made with the look of adoration the little girl has and the warmness of Mitsuo, a tear rolling down his face and a look of understanding.

The sounds of the film are equally important in detailing the deep emotions on offer. It all takes place in summer so the sounds of cicadas and festivals are intense enough to offer a contrast to the deafening silences the characters go through. When it replaces speech, the audience focuses on the acting and when characters talk it generates more force and meaning. This sets up a tear-inducing finale.

When the ending comes, having journeyed through all of the complex pain and suffering, the audience will be physically and emotionally taken to the aftermath of a disaster and blessed with a moment of catharsis delivered through an innocent and simple gesture and gazes that radiate as bright as the sunflowers in the film and suggest moving on. This film has to be seen.

The Sower was shown at the Osaka Asian Film Festival on March 11 and will be shown again on March 16.