Tatsunari Ota - There is a Stone
Credit: Tatsunari Ota
by Sean Gilman Featured Film

There is a Stone — Tatsunari Ota [Berlinale ’23 Review]

February 22, 2023

A young woman from Tokyo finds herself in a strange town. In the beginning, she is looking for a tourist site, the ruins of an old castle perhaps, but all she finds are empty fields. Wandering around, she’s invited to play soccer with some kids, but soon they all go home. Walking along the river, she meets a man who is perhaps too eager to hang around with her, skipping stones, playing with sticks, stacking rocks. They have fun, but there’s an uneasiness to their interactions: no personal information is exchanged, they don’t talk about anything other than the games they’re making up. Eventually, they part, she gets lost (her phone dies) and spends the night in some kind of an office. In the morning, she finds a dog and takes it for a walk. Then she takes the train home.

That’s what happens in There Is a Stone, but the experience of watching it is something else entirely. Conditioned by narrative — news stories, films, television shows — we keep expecting something weird, or dangerous, to happen to the woman. And she seems to expect that as well. Who is this man? What does he really want? Does he mean her harm? The two walk along the river for a good hour of this 100-minute movie, and for most of that time, we are waiting for the familiar plot to kick in: An act of physical aggression if this is a drama or horror narrative; a bit of awkward dialogue or maybe some joking if this is a romance or a comedy. But director Ota Tatsunari never gives us those expected moments. There Is a Stone doesn’t conform to any recognizable genre, and it doesn’t fit into any preconceived form — aside from the flat, telephoto images he captures in a 1.33 frame, constricting space yet distorting the relations within it such that things that appear close together are in fact very far apart. Instead, we’re forced to reevaluate what we’ve seen on its own terms, as a simple series of discrete actions that, like life itself, doesn’t alway match the fictional structures that we’ve invented in order to explain and simplify the world.

Our uncertainty is paralleled by the woman’s own. (Neither character here is given a name or any information outside of their interactions with each other.) She repeatedly tries to separate herself from the man, but usually goes back to him to play some more games. We can’t really know, but we can assume that she’s afraid of him at times, attracted to him at others. The attraction isn’t romantic or sexual, but rather something like the freedom of children, who can simply walk up to a stranger and ask if they want to play and then just as simply walk away when the sun goes down and it’s time to go home. After they part, we see the man return to his home. Here we think, “Aha! This creep’s perversions will finally be revealed!” But no: he has a nice, normal house. He has a lot of books. He drinks tea out of a glass he keeps in a china cabinet. He keeps a diary. In it he describes his day, including the interactions we’ve just seen. All he records are the facts: he met a woman, didn’t get her name, they played games by the river, he went home. That’s all there is to it. There truly is an innocence to their relationship, but only in retrospect. While watching the film, we’re always in dread of what horrible action will come next. That it never does is a lesson to us to take things as they are, experience each moment in life as its own thing, and pay attention to what is in front of our face. Perhaps that’s what the woman learned, and thus her smile on the train ride home, as she sees the man in the river once more. But then again, maybe not. Who can say what comes next.

Published as part of InRO Weekly — Volume 1, Issue 7.5.