"Faces of a Fig Tree" Female Desire and Subjectivity By Adina Bradeanu
Since Noel Burch’s classic book “To the Distant Observer” was published in 1979 the reception of Japanese cinema has been predicated on notions of distance and difference. Drawing on Ki No Tsurayuki’s graceful figures resting under a cherry tree and chatting about its blossoms while actually thinking “very different thoughts”, Burch prompted a still ongoing debate about the specificity of Japanese cinema and its interpretation from the outside.
Faces of a Fig Tree (Ichijiku No Kao) from thr first-time writer-director Kaori Momoi is one of those films that cry the word difference to the distant observer and complicate potential attempts to discern between what is specific national or cultural cinematic luggage, and what is luxuriant individual imagination.
Momoi’s directorial debut is a boldly experimental story about a family struggling to cope with life’s challenges. Set in a Euro-American context, the film would have probably been a melodrama — in the sense of a family film that places a woman at its core, invests in a richly textured mise-en-scene and dramatizes larger social tensions by transplanting them within the domestic sphere. As it is, the combination of quirky cinematic syntax with Japanese setting makes Faces of a Fig Tree a both bizarre and emotionally comforting experience which resists being placed in a genre or another.
This absurdist-comedy-meets-feminine-go-with-the-flow is an eclectic mix of melancholy, sadness and irreverent humour with surrealist overtones. It is a film about changes, farewells, memories, and living with the past. The setting of the story is a traditional Japanese house with a small garden populated by a fig tree, as the sole observer of life’s passing. The tree gradually becomes the dramatic nexus of the story — both a comforting space for the female character — a sort of melancholy-ridden room of one’s own – and a sign for the feminine itself: the faces of the fig tree are the seasons of femininity itself.
At the centre of the story is Masaa, an affectionately caricatured traditional matriarch unable to cope with the unfortunate events that pull apart her family. Her husband dies of exhaustion after having completed a series of mysterious night job tasks at a construction site. We only find out about that from the widow’s hilarious phone conversation with a sushi delivery place while she arranges the ceremonial farewell meal. Masaa cracks up emotionally. Unable to deal with the present, she gets increasingly tangled in the past. Adding to that, the daughter Yume, a Japanese Ugly Betty, learns that she has been adopted by her parents. Pregnancy and single motherhood come somehow naturally on top of that.
A significant part of Faces of a Fig Tree revolves around the cooking area and the shared space of a traditional Japanese home: the story is framed by two similarly designed family tableaux placed on the opening and the end-credits. The film starts with laughter and small talk over a pot of bubbly fondue: a family of four is sharing dinner, served by the submissive-eccentric mother. The meal ends abruptly when three members of the family rush to their responsibilities and leave the mother alone with the house chores… and the fig tree.
The same sequence appears on the end credits, with a slight change of characters and a lapse into temporal distortion: the mother is now accompanied by both her husbands — the dead one and the one that she married afterwards — and by all the other members of her family brought together in a memorial present which merges actual present and subjective past. “If we are all here, this means that we are temporarily in the past”, comments one character pointing to the layers of inter-generational memory that make up a family. His comment resonates with a previous reference to Masaa’s abilities to travel between the past and the present: “Sometimes she is here, sometimes she revisits her past, and some other times she is somebody’s mother.”
Kaori Momoi’s story conveys a space of female desire and subjectivity made out of suppressed emotion, nostalgia and longing — see the touching sequence of Masaa lying in the shadow of the fig tree at dusk, surrounded by blue gleaming marbles scattered on the floor. But the writer-director sidesteps sentimentality through the humor of a central character bricolaged at the intersection of a clichéd, ever-bowing Japanese femininity with a pinch of chatty sitcom-femaleness. The film gets across a richness of female experience but subverts clichéd versions of sacrificial motherhood: Maasa is a mother that loses it, being unable to cope with the tragedy that strikes her family; but that tragedy is conveyed in a series of absurd vignettes of family life which resist an interpretation through the melodramatic.
Praising female subjectivity, Faces of a Fig Tree is also a satire of the clichéd coldness of the Japanese society: the wife is overwhelmed when she hears her name called by her husband, and a marriage proposal comes naturally over the counter between two employees of a café that bans private conversations. The film touches on Japanese social customs such as the ethos of tacit understanding between the spouses, and the subsequent emotional distance and rarefied marital relationships. The absurd plot about a husband taking a mysterious night job trying to fix some pipes in a deserted building and being occasionally pampered at home by the loving, non-confrontational wife resonates from afar with the Japanese commuting marriages. The set design ironically attends to the distinct male and female worlds in Japanese society: from the warm, brightly colored and richly textured interiors of maternal femininity unfolding around the house and the nostalgia colored fig tree, to the dry, cold, hyper-stylized decorum of the male work environment.
The film both narrates and subverts the tensions between female desire and socially sanctioned Japanese femininity. It can be taken as a comment on the changing roles of women in Japan, but its semantic span cannot be reduced to that. “I never had a space of my own: I went directly from my father’s house into your father’s house, just like I traded owners”, whispers the mother recently relocated into her freelance journalist daughter’s flat. In spite of the relative bitterness of this assertion, there is no sense of resentment in this eclectic film, which ultimately proves a genuine, albeit bizarrely conveyed, sense of poetry and contemplation.
Unorthodox aesthetic decisions abound in Faces of a Fig Tree: Momoi turns her back to conventional story-telling through wildly unconventional shots, sudden shifts of perspective and even a one-off animated interlude with two hilariously irreverent ants. Through the overlapping of distinctive styles and moods, the film de-stabilizes the viewer; but its abrupt tone switches converge in a surprisingly organic whole which is ultimately moving for the ‘distant observer’.
Several moments remain stuck to the retina: I took with me the medium shot of a devastated Masaa hidden in the bathroom, tears on her cheeks, whispering “there’s no water” after having finally accepted the death of her husband: a concentrated pill of feminine despair, the very embodiment of loss.