Vision (Japan, 2018) [SDAFF 2018]

Naomi Kawase is a director who translates new age ideas to the screen with ease. Her work evidences an eye for the beauty of the natural world and a knack for getting good performances from her actors. Kawase delivers beautiful paeans to the power of life itself as exemplified here in a story of a French woman who heads to an ancient forest in Japan as she seeks a mysterious herb that can heal many things including, she hopes, an aching pain in her heart.

Vision takes place in and around Nara Prefecture’s Yoshino Forest. Here we find Satoshi (Masatoshi Nagase), a reticent forest ranger who lives and works in the area along with his faithful dog Koh and a wise woman named Aki (Mari Natsuki). Aki claims to be 1000 years old and one can believe it since she is in tune with nature and knows all about the ancient environment and the plants and herbs that reside in it. Aki warns Satoshi of the transformation about to come but he, despite being aware of the stirring energy that is affecting all life in the forest, hides from it by diligently continuing with his work. Little does Satoshi know that he will be directly caught up in the winds of change.

Jeanne (Juliette Binoche) is a French writer who has travelled to Nara to find a rare medicinal plant named “vision” that grows only once every 997 years. It sounds like a legend but she is convinced it does exist and she has a hidden reason for her search. With the help of a translator named Hana (Minami) Jeanne makes her way to Yoshino Forest and runs into Satoshi who initially remains taciturn but the two form a relationship as she ropes him into her search for the plant. Life itself changes for them both as seemingly unexpected events occur but we soon discover that nothing is random as we experience the wonders of Yoshino Forest with Jeanne and Satoshi in their search for “vision”.

The central mystery of Vision comes from discovering Jeanne’s connection to the forest and why she searches for the plant. With the shared present-tense narrative between Jeanne and Satoshi acting as a core, Kawase’s script sprinkles in seemingly random scenes and sequences from other perspectives and times. She cuts between interviews with elderly natives of Yoshino, flashbacks involving golden-hued shots of lakes with a man named Gaku (Mirai Moriyama), the appearance of a mysterious young man named Rin (Takanori Iwata) as well as scenes from Aki and Koh’s point-of-view. These elements gradually coalesce into a coherent narrative that plays into the notions of holism Kawase often has in her films. While not exactly mind-blowingly complex, it features enough talk of the environment to imbue a sense of spiritualism and mysticism to proceedings. This life-force is compelling enough to ensure audiences will stick around and not feel that the later twists are totally outrageous. Patience is required because it doesn’t give up answers quickly but Vision never drags and there is a satisfying ending which links together with the beginning so that a sense of oneness emerges from the film’s daring dream-weaving finale. As is typical with Kawase, it’s all visually engaging as she indulges in location porn so we get a real sensory experience of the forest

Kawase shows off her home prefecture as she explores Yoshino Forest and the chief delight of the film has to be the visual feast she conjures up with cinematographer Arata Dodo. From soaring overhead shots relaying the extent of the forest to low-angle ones staring at the skies with tall trees swaying all around in the wind impressionistically, the density, height and breadth of the place is captured and it almost feels primordial at times. The quality of the light and the differing shades of the sky are sensitivity depicted with many scenes showing something beautiful like the light blue sky turning to violet as the night closes in with flecks of gold from the departing sun cast upon trees. The sensual nature of physical contact is also highlighted with close-ups of plants and trees, moss and fungus, people and places, to show the textures, contours and movements of all living things. It’s a gorgeous tapestry of life with added aural sensation provided by the echoes of dog barks, birdcalls, and the constant sound of the trees and the wind talking.

Almost as engaging are the actors with Nagase and Binoche in particular doing fine, especially individually. The energies of the rest of the cast don’t quite mesh together, something made obvious by the switching between English, French and Japanese in awkward and occasionally hokey dialogue exchanges where the new age spiritualism can feel trite. This is a minor quibble as everyone, at the very least, convinces in their roles. Still, they are but support for the forest, which ultimately steals the show.

Vision is showing on November 10 at the San Diego Asian Film Festival.