Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art

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PostPosted: Fri Jul 14, 2023 9:43 pm 
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TRAILER [no subtitles]


Japan's late Edo period seen from a new angle

The world of jidaigeki Japanese historical films is a tastily atmospheric one. This time stinkily atmospheric, and more original than most. Sekai no Okiku, which begins in 1858 in Edo (Tokyo) and environs, largely revolves around the very different way that human excrement was dealt with in those days. ("Shit" is the word in the subtitles so it must reflect blunt language in the Japanese.). Junji Sakamoto's mostly black and white square format film takes us into the much different and more basic world of the late Edo period, focusing on two shit dealers or 'manure men,' and Okiku (Haru Kuroki), a pretty temple schoolteacher, daughter of a discredited Samurai (Koichi Sato) living in a humble tenement, who suffers terrible misfortune but finds love. The [url=""]Japan Times[/url] veteran film writer Mark Schilling links this film with the 1957 Kurosawa classic The Lower Depths; but it's sui generis, and graphic enough to shock the squeamish.

The three are first united in front of an outhouse in a heavy rain. Chunji (Kanichiro), at this point a waste paper seller, stands on one side, Yasuke (Ikematsu Sosuke), `a manure seller with his two pots of shit, is on the other, and Okiku runs up, coming from the temple, too proper to say why she's really there. It's obvious Okiko, who remembers Chunji from the temple where he sells paper, fancies the lean, handsome young man, and scorns Yasuke.

Things change after that. Yasuke, who has just lost his partner, persuades the initially unwilling Chunji to join him in the more profitable manure trade. Okiko's father is murdered and her throat is slit, rendering her long ill and forever voiceless. A cross-class romance slowly, very slowly, grows up between Okiku and Chunji, though he feels unworthy. The sweet sentimentality of their love reminds me of something in De Sicfa's Miracle in Milan. They are reduced to emphatic gestures because she can't speak and he's illiterate. When she wordlessly proposes to him, he asks if she can teach him to read and write some time, and later he joins a class where she holds up her own handsomely brushed pages of calligraphic text to illustrate the stentorian lesson of the temple teacher (Maki Claude) - he's focusing on "world" - the word and the place - and some adults sit in the back behind the kids, generously welcomed as latecomers to literacy.

The manure men are scoffed at but not lacking in dignity. Chunji is, after all, good-looking, and has a natural grace. Chunji lives poorly but in town; Yasuko is more of a country bumpkin. Whether or not they scoff, the citizenry would be mired in shit and the farmers lacking in fertilizer without the manure men, who don't seem to have much competition.

This film is organized quaintly into short chapters - preceded by vertical, calligraphic titles - that end with a few seconds in color. It ranges from bawdy humor to historical examination to harsh social commentary to sentimental romanticism. The camera is often on the sludge Chunji and Yasuko deal in and their big ladles and double short barrels hoisted on shoulders. They must buy it, and the price goes up. They take it to sell to country farmers, and also spread it on cultivated fields - it's a world unlike ours, a simpler, more efficient time when waste is not wasted.

Many rude and comical mishaps occur, but we're never allowed to forget the unfair abuse heaped on the manure men, who as both orphans, are free but lonely, and still harbor emotional needs. There is an over-explicit aspect about all this, but the strength of the film is that it takes us so deep into the basics of a world whose simple lack of plumbing and flush toilets makes it so very different from ours. The filmmaker hasn't escaped the historical genre but he has made it feel different and fresh.

Okiku and the World せかいのおき, 90 mins., debuted at Rotterdam Feb. 1, 2023, released theatrically in Japan in April and afterwards shown at Jeonju and Shanghai .Screened for this review as part of the 2023 New York Asian Film Festival.
Sunday, July 16
2:30 PM, Walter Reade Theater
Q&A with Junji Sakamoto, who will be honored with NYAFF’s 2023 Screen International Star Asia Lifetime Achievement Award

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