Against Removal from the World By Chris Fujiwara
In The Cheese and the Worms (Chiizu to ujimushi), as in many documentaries, the filmmaker figures as a character. The question arises: what is the proper way to show the self, what is the best way to put oneself in the film so as not to overwhelm the other subjects of the film? A question of protocol, of good taste, and also an ethical question – all the more sensitive in this film, because the filmmaker, Haruyo Kato, is videotaping the death of her mother (by cancer, over a period of time starting before the terminal stage of the illness).
The filmmaker’s presence is strong yet discreet. She is mainly present through her voice, as she speaks to her mother and her grandmother. Her voice is always gentle and full of affection. There is one moment only in which she speaks sharply – in an outcry of protest, when a young child starts to climb across the corpse of the dead woman (which is laid out for a wake). The child becomes frightened, and Kato, instantly remorseful, resumes her natural role of the person who soothes and comforts the other family members.
Visually, the filmmaker is mainly an implication: a hand that sometimes emerges from offscreen to bring an object into the image, or the offscreen face at which the onscreen mother looks. The filmmaker is, then, present without being fully apparent. And the camera too is allowed to disappear. It ceases to be an intruder, an aggressor, or a collector of reality. It is more the extension that allows Kato to record the same reality at which she assists.
The camera is also an instrument by which she exerts her gentle, loving, obstinate pressure: helping her mother contend with her illness, urging the mother to hold on to life, exposing hidden areas (most memorably a cask in which worms are swarming – an image that Kato’s fixed stare finally deprives of dread), scouring the surfaces of reality in an effort to locate and celebrate their coherence, a coherence that the film suggests can be conferred only by the family.
Negating or emptying out this coherence is the white screen to which The Cheese and the Worms returns intermittently. At first this whiteness is harsh and painful to look at, but the repetition that structures the movie (in short sections separated by intertitles) enables the viewer’s eyes to get used to the sting of the whiteness. Late in the film, Kato stretches the duration of the white absence, less to represent the mother’s death and her own grief than to insert a place holder for them – signifying loss by prolonging the loss of image.
The final section of the film is extremely audacious: Kato now repeats images we have seen earlier in the film, images of the living mother (for example, trying to teach herself to play the shamisen) that when first seen were fresh and full of promise and sorrow but that on repetition lose some of their first vividness. These repetitions (whose pretext is the very practical one that after the mother’s death, the footage shot for the film has become a document that allows the grandmother to remember her dead daughter) remind the viewer in the most direct way that the need for the survivors to go on after the death of a loved one is necessarily a betrayal.
This late section is also, perhaps (although I don’t insist on this interpretation), an exposé of another betrayal: that performed by video, a medium that with its potential for instantaneous and effortless memorization threatens a loss of reality that is worse than a forgetting. But Kato in any case is content neither with showing nor critiquing this danger but insists on recapturing video as a valid and significant aid to mourning. Which is quite appropriate and satisfying, in context of the film, since Kato has already, in the first, longer section that precedes the mother’s death, overcome that other danger posed by video, to which I alluded (obliquely) earlier: the (false) removal of the filmmaker from the world.