They Say Nothing Stays the Same (Japan, 2019) [NYAFF 2020]
Troubled times require clarification, which often requires a troubled approach. Japanese cinema is not alien to attempts to make sense of trouble with trouble; of violence with violence. Written and directed by actor Joe Odagiri, They Say Nothing Stays the Same contributes to this growing strand of Japanese cinema with an observation of classical Japanese storytelling and masterful filmmaking.
The film looks at the life of Toichi (Akira Emoto), a boatman who helps people pass by a river for spare change, and occurs in what seems to be a period where industrial development is gradually being exposed in front of him. A bridge is being constructed not far from where Toichi’s resides. Subtly happening in the background are sounds of clanging of hammers and other noise that contradict the serene landscapes of the river and forests that is often captured by cinematographer, Christopher Doyle. The passage of passengers from the city to their small town, including the construction workers that are employed to build the bridge, slowly tells Toichi of his looming obsolescence.
Toichi is often accompanied by a gatherer named Genzo (Nijiro Murakami) who shares with him crops to eat during his afternoon break. One night on his way home, Toichi bumps his boat into a floating body. The wounded girl calls herself Fu (Ririka Kawashima) and he takes her home once he realizes she’s still breathing. Toichi and Genzo take care of the girl. Days passed and Toichi hears of a strange rumor from some of his passengers about the murder of a family from another town, with the daughter missing.
Toichi’s interactions with city folk, talks about the bridge and the swirling rumors bother his simple mind. He is shaken by the sudden realization of what is yet to come. A ghost appears to tell him of the miseries that Fu is going to bring him. These are all exposed to him with such abruptness that the film itself seems you work violently against him. They constitute glimpses of Sartrean hell for Toichi who’s only sin is his ignorance of the world outside the boat that he rows across the river day by day.
There’s an obvious observation of classical filmmaking in They Say Nothing Stays the Same, far from Odagiri’s bizarrely surreal first feature Looking for Cherry Blossoms (2009). But this is far from the central-conflict approach that classical Hollywood filmmaking follows. What the film offers are spikes of escalating threat from outside the protagonists’ realm. It’s a narrative approach more akin to that of Yasujiro Ozu or Kenji Mizoguchi than contemporary filmmakers.
The film depends a lot on its presentation of multiple conflicts happening in parallel. Odagiri and Masaya Okazaki’s editing highlights this in every sequence in their use of transitions: the pace of cuts and dissolves contrast with the calming shots of the river. The scenes were arranged as though we go inside and out of Toichi’s mind that’s slowly descending into a mess. The result is a kind of screen violence reminiscent of the early films of Nagisa Oshima. They Say Nothing Stays the Same is a meditation on violence that is more violent than meditative: it does not let itself drown in the overbearing contemplative long-takes that many contemporary art-house films delve into.
But like the best films tackling violence, They Say Nothing Stays the Same understands how violence is ambivalent. Over snacks, Genzo suggests to Toichi time that they can blow up the bridge before it is completed. This thought haunts Toichi over time. But this is not a gesture of a moralistic conscience playing against Toichi’s supposed innocence. As the story unfolds, this suggestion makes more sense with regards to most of the conflicts that Toichi encounters. The film does not reject violence. Rather, it thinks through it, and with it, as if it is part of its very nature.
They Say Nothing Stays the Same provides a more grounded take on an abstract subject matter. Contrary to what some people might think of the film, it does not live within any sort of metaphysical space: Toichi is disturbed by what’s in front of him, and his supposed simplemindedness makes him consider his situation in a more concrete sense. Even Toichi’s fear of obsolescence, of his descent to nothingness, is something very real. The film does not pretend to offer something profound and its strongest quality is this simplicity and straightforwardness. As a final touch to ambivalence, They Say Nothing Stays the Same presents a complicated matter in a simple yet very effective manner.
They Say Nothing Stays the Same is streaming as part of the New York Asian Film Festival which runs from August 28 to September 12.