Credit: Cannes Film Festival
by Matt McCracken Film

Yamabuki — Juichiro Yamasaki

May 28, 2022

Over the course of his three-feature film career, Japanese filmmaker Juichiro Yamasaki has been at pains to elucidate and track the situation and situatedness of contemporary Japanese rural life under the terms of socio-historical relations and economic development. 2011’s The Sound of Light related its protagonist’s struggle between following a path of modern urban living and pastoral life as a dairy farmer; while 2015’s Sanchu Uprising: Voices at Dawn explored in a formally avant-garde, genre-honoring and -defying manner the prescience and lingering relevance of class struggle and peasant revolt for rural Japanese society as related in the film from the Edo period of the 1700s through to the present day. And in Yamabuki, Yamasaki’s IFFR-competing and Cannes 2022-programmed third feature, the director demonstrates that such raw socio-political concerns continue to fiercely persist in his mind.

The film — whose name references a yellow flower native to Japan, Korea, and China, as well as the name of one of its principal actors (Kilala Inori) — may in its structure and plotting remind viewers of a similarly botanically inclined work, Magnolia, encompassing as it does the intersecting and weaving, happenstance-laden narrative threads of struggling, quarry-working Korean migrant worker and former Olympic equestrian Chang-su (Kang Yoon-soo) and his de facto but precariously footed Japanese family; secondary school-attending Yamabuki’s nascent interest in political activism and search for identity, each of which affects and causes friction with her widowed policeman father (Yohta Kawase) and high school love interest; and, at the margins, more besides, in a gang of money-robbing criminals and bar-owning organizers, alongside communities of itinerant workers and social justice organizers activated on issues related to almost any cause of contemporary relevance.

Elucidating the story’s business is useful here in that it makes apparent the sheer amount of concerns and interests Yamasaki brings to the work; which, unlike the 180-minute aforementioned American film, clocks in at just over 90 minutes before credits. While this observation may shape out the dimensions of a criticism that the work is too busy — and it almost certainly is — or that the director has bitten off more than he can chew, it’s the view of this writer that the director’s achievements outweigh such commentary. Yamasaki’s approach, if anything, displays a sense and awareness of the complexity that rural living contains, and that it may indeed be at the forefront of some of, the most stirring and existentially charged elements of modern living; and in this it is likely no mistake that the director has found and imagined this in shooting in his hometown in western Japan.

Beyond such stated success, the film boasts in Kilala Inori an excellent performance that pensively threads through the narrative over-load and -lap, giving expression to the spiritual substance and perhaps even optimism of a work that — in subtly rejecting nationalism and bringing a multiplicity of international experiences present in Japan to the forefront — champions youthful discovering and knowing in the face of seemingly overwhelming propaganda. And it’s for all this that perhaps a more apt Western reference point may well be less Magnolia and more Twin Peaks in how Yamasaki resolves his thoughts on how spirituality inflects his narrative and informs the interactions of grace and despair in his characters, as some are left with loss while others find all they want returning to them beyond reason. All this and more in 90 minutes is quite an achievement, and it speaks to the promise of the director who, much like in Sanchu Uprising’s black-and-white, Jidaigeki genre and New Wave-honoring experimentation, is here no less interested in formal richness, as the final moments of this washed-out, 16mm work give way to time- and medium-bending psychological editing and match cuts that throw into question all that has been and is being seen. Yes, it may be the case that ultimately all of this is decidedly too much — but, much like life itself, things often feel just too much. If nothing else, Yamasaki perfectly captures the nature of this experience here.

Published as part of Cannes Film Festival 2022 — Dispatch 5.