Bleached Bones Avenue (Japan, 2020) [OAFF 2020]

Bleached Bones Avenue is the latest title from director Akio Fujimoto. On the face of it, this short is a curious follow-up to his previous work, the family drama Passage of Life (2017), but it continues to examine the human links between Japan and Myanmar in its own unique way.

Fujimoto’s latest film takes place in Myanmar’s Chin state and observes the work of a team from the Zomi tribe who recover the remains of Japanese soldiers who died during the battle of Imphal. We watch as these men, each clad in simple tracksuits, hoodies and t-shirts, prepare for their work then travel by SUV to some remote area. A stream of sequences flow by where the action consists of the team traversing steep mountains, dense with trees, where they dig with simple tools. The only sounds are of bird cries, the voices the men and the tools they use as they gouge out chunks of earth in the hope of bones surfacing from the past. Although the environment looks as if it has remained untouched by human hands, the scars of war are gradually unearthed. This is most potently evidenced in the memories of wartime atrocities passed on from older members of the team to the younger ones and the wreckage of a tank which forms the focal point of a valley. As with the digging, human connections resurface from the river of time and the natural landscape.

On first viewing, Bleached Bones Avenue feels like a documentary. The camera observes everything without any visual or aural ostentations to distract. There are some poetic visuals due to the sheer natural beauty of the landscape but the art happened on the location just as much as in the editing. However, while the film records and displays vital history, this is no documentary. Every cut naturally flows into the next so spontaneous moments of play when younger members throw stones off the mountain seamlessly move into the sober moments of reflection when the elders pass on the memories of people who encountered soldiers and witnessed atrocities during the war. Camera placement and framing of subjects by Fujimoto and cinematographer Kentaro Kishi generates an almost visceral atmosphere – it is as if a single current is pulling everything along throughout the film’s 16 minutes.

Full theatricality is seen when the film takes on the point of view of a Japanese soldier who observes the team digging, as signaled by the screen turning black and white and a shot of an eye observing the action. It creates a poignant feeling since this POV belongs to a ghost of the past conjured up by the digging, adding another layer to the idea of past and present being connected by the team. The film’s location already gives it an ethereal atmosphere but these theatrical moments enhance the sense of a haunted atmosphere.

As we travel with the team through the mountain paths and gaze over vast distances covered with jungle, audiences will begin to appreciate the hardship the soldiers and local tribes had to suffered through. Its this experiential factor is what makes the film different from others that have tackled the history of Imphal as Bleached Bones Avenue zeroes in on the local environment and people, connecting viewers to the past through how it has influenced the action of people in the present. 

Bleached Bones Avenue was shown at the Osaka Asian Film Festival on March 10 and 14.