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Year: 2008
Director: Hashiguchi Ryosuke (橋口亮輔)
Screenplay: Hashiguchi Ryosuke (橋口亮輔)
Cinematography: Ueno Shogo
Cast: Kimura Tae (木村多江), Franky Lily (リリー・フランキー)
Runtime: 140 min

Seen at the ICA as part of The Japan Foundation’s Touring Film Programme Whose Film Is It Anyway? Contemporary Japanese Auteurs”.

With a plot centring on a couple that loses their unborn child, I expected Gururi no Koto to be a heart-wrenching film. I went in thinking it would depict the emotional unravelling of its characters to the lowest point, that it would show us their grief, their anger and their sadness over the tragic death, but, alas, there was little of this. Instead, Gururi no Koto surprised me.

We enter the film in the early stages of pregnancy as Shoko (Kimura Tae) is only just starting to show. What we do see from the start is a couple that is noticeably estranged, a man and a woman that have clearly very distinct personalities – Shoko has calendar days marked with an “X” for when to have sex with her husband, while the very chill Kanao half-heartedly flirts with every woman that comes to his shoe repair shop, and saunters home late, despite a 10 p.m. curfew imposed by his wife. Their relationship feels so distanced that one spends the first half hour wondering why they are together at all, indeed, whatever brought them together in the first place?

It’s certainly not their families: Kanao has no contact with his, and Shoko’s is convinced that she has married beneath herself as her mother, older brother and sister-in-law all look down on Kanao. To them, Shoko’s husband is a good-for-nothing scribbler who moves from one lowly odd job to another, with no solid source of income to speak of – although we soon discover that the big-talking in-laws are in a no better situation with their constant investments in shady business opportunities.

The noticeably estranged couple, both on an emotional and physical level.

The actual tragedy of the child loss is not depicted on the screen. There are no details on why, how or even when Shoko miscarried the child. The raw, immediate reactions to the death are tucked away as Gururi no Koto cuts from a scene months before the birth to weeks?, maybe months?, after, when Shoko is back at work. Amounting to an extensive time gap, the omission is significant and reflective of the film’s overall approach. Except for one climatic scene when Shoko finally breaks down, we are never given any real insight into the emotional torment of the characters. We see only the façades behind which they hide, we see them withdraw into themselves, not talking to each other, or to relatives and friends. Kanao’s sketching colleagues, generally a quite social bunch, for example, never learn that he and his wife have lost a child – indeed, they never even knew that Shoko was pregnant to begin with.

The lack of emotional exposure is unexpected, but over the course of the film becomes just as powerful, if not more so, than an in-depth exploration of the characters’ inner lives would have been. It highlights that individuals who experience traumas of this sort often distance themselves from everything and everyone around them, retreating into themselves so that knowing their feelings becomes impossible. As Kanao is shut out from Shoko’s pain (and Shoko from Kanao’s), the door to their bedroom closed in his face, the viewers are shut out as well.

The silently suffering Shoko.

These feelings of distance are reinforced through the use of time in Gururi no Koto. The story spans a total of eight years, beginning in 1993, but provides only glimpses of what happens during all that time. Select moments are shown, with a year or two having passed between some scenes. Again, viewers are prevented from getting a real sense of the situation and what the characters are going through, conveying not only how difficult and powerless one is in the face of someone who has withdrawn into themselves, but also offering a reminder that depression is not something that is overcome in a matter of days or even weeks, but a struggle that extends over years. It is in this sense that the film becomes a very honest and real depiction of the illness, and more moving because of it.

Both lead actors give wonderful, if contrasting performances. Kimura’s Shoko experiences a gamut of emotions over the course of Gururi no Koto, starting as the rather uptight, anxious wife, whose fragility is fully exposed after the miscarriage, which takes her to the lowest points of humanity before she finds inner peace again, and joy at simply being alive (a lovely, tiny moment that reveals how far Shoko has come is when the fragrance of freshly cooked rice paints happiness on her face). Kanao largely remains the same person throughout, giving Franky less as a chance to shine as an actor, but there is significance in this character-wise: although Kanao comes across as quiet and passively detached, indeed, even as apathetic, his overly calm personality in the end becomes a point of stability in Shoko’s life that helps her overcome depression. Kanao never forces anything on or out of Shoko but lets her be. It does not matter to him for her to do things right, but that Shoko is with him – in the good times, as well as the bad, something that very much contrasts with the judgemental attitudes of her family which have been suffocating her all this while. Although Kanao and Shoko are not the perfect couple, they do make sense together.

Kanao, at a murder trial at court.

Art plays an important role in the film. At the beginning of the story, Kanao accepts a job offer to work as a sketch artist at court, with the scenes at his workplace providing both contrast and parallel to how the couple’s life is unravelling at home. Kanao attends murder trials, most frequently involving the death of young children. The trial scene most immediate to the loss of his own child details a particularly horrific crime in which the murderer consumed the victim’s fingers and blood. Pictureless yet gruesomely graphic in words, the questioning of the defendant is agonising to listen to but intensifies the impact of what Kanao and Shoko have experienced, the senselessness of such deaths – whether murder or miscarriage – that they must come to terms with. Art, however, is also what in the end provides the connection between the couple – past and present – and allows them to become closer than they ever were before. It turns out that Shoko was once an artist herself and it is only when she picks up a paintbrush again that things start falling back into place. Her healing comes through a project she undertakes and becomes so engrossed in (and thus in life) that she pores over an art book in the middle of the night – that Shoko, who previously planned it all out. It’s subtle in a way, but as she bends over the table in her very short nightie, the camera angle (she is filmed from behind) adds an erotic layer to the scene, suggesting that the silently watching Kanao’s sexual attraction to her has been revived. Finally, it is also art that wins Kanao, after many years, acceptance from at least one of Shoko’s family members.

The score of 9.5 may seem rather high because Gorori no Koto isn’t a film without flaws. At 140 minutes, it is long, probably too long, and some of the court scenes might have easily been cut. Many filmmakers would have likely concluded Gururi no Koto with Kanao and Shoko happily staring at the latter’s paintings at the temple to which she gifts them, but Hashiguchi closes at court. It is a scene that is unneeded, but signals the realism of the film: court is where Kanao works and continues to work, it is one of the many pieces of his life at all times as – no matter how ordinary and insignificant this may seem, no matter what happens – life will go on.

Overall Verdict: Unexpectedly indirect in its portrayal of the emotional torment that Gururi no Koto’s protagonists experience, the quietness and realism of the film make it ever so more touching and powerful, leaving, despite the heavy subject matter, a hopeful feeling behind.
Rating: 9.5/10

Bonus bits:

  • Gururi no Koto review from lovehkfilm.com. Most interesting bit: The writer points out that the court cases are based on some very infamous real cases!

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