"Glasses": A New Comic Genre By George Perry

in 51st San Francisco International Film Festival

by George Perry

Naoko Ogigami’s film Glasses (Megane) is her fourth feature, and confirms a spectacular and original talent, even perhaps defining a new comic genre.

A middle-aged loner comes to a quiet country hotel beside a sunlit glistening sea and a golden beach, and is enveloped in a series of eccentric and humorous incidents. Recognize? It is of course Tati’s eternal Les Vacances de Monsieur Hulot. Naoko Ogigami has taken that situation and reworked it entirely freshly, creating a quirky, gentle comedy that eventually becomes a joyous affirmation of life.

Unlike Hulot, who is the catalyst for chaos, her leading character Taeko (Satomi Kobayashi) is placid, a person to whom things happen, rather than their instigator. Ogigami never discloses much in the way of background, but this seems to be a professional woman who to escape stress has journeyed in springtime to a Japanese island, its magnificent shoreline surrounding a dull, flat interior of beanfields. Finding her hotel, Hamada, from the tiny airport is difficult as its owner (Ken Mitsuishi) makes a habit of supplying incomprehensible maps to deter business. Too many guests disturb the peaceful rhythms of his life. Unsurprisingly the place is under-populated and meals are eaten at a hardwood table in the immaculate kitchen, having been prepared by the host with extraordinary care, the ingredients sourced mainly from the sea. Sakura, a mysterious older woman (Masako Motai) is also there and helps him, quietly observes, conducts curious exercise groups on the sands and operates a beach stand dispensing the Japanese thirst-quenching delicacy, shaved ice, which as prepared by her is sheer ambrosia. There is also a young, outspoken island schoolteacher, disgruntled that she has not found a man, who while not a guest takes her meals at the hotel.

Taeko, initially intimidated by the casualness of service and oddness of attitude, flees to another hotel, which she finds is run like a kibbutz, with hoeing in the fields by day and philosophy classes in the evening. Appalled, she decides to return on foot, lugging her heavy metal suitcase along interminable dusty roads, until she is rescued by Sakura, who appears silently riding a slow tricycle. Taeko’s case is left behind, a metaphor for the discarding of her city tensions. She becomes absorbed by the gentle, other world craziness of Hamada and learns the art of “twilighting”, a relaxed, Zen-like contemplation of the sea that purges all angst. She has found her Nirvana, and will return.

Ogigami paces things slowly, keeping dialogue to a minimum, yet holding attention with her clean, carefully composed cinematography. At the San Francisco festival screening she even issued a sleep warning to the audience, but implied that it hardly mattered as nodding-off was within the spirit of the film. Her actors, particularly Kobayashi and Motai, have great gifts of control, the ability to project complex thoughts by the subtlest lifting of an eye or flicker of the mouth. On this paradisical island little else matters beyond the recharging of spiritual batteries and the enjoyment of eating. Sakura at one point is seen cooking beans to perfection by watching and loving them to the exact moment when they are ready.

The ocean constantly presides over the proceedings, an infinite and mysterious blue backdrop that nourishes the captivating serenity of the atmosphere. Anyone who knows the original lyrics of “La Mer”, Charles Trenet’s celebrated and evocative paean to the magic of the sea (not Bobby Darin’s English version) will understand. “La mer a bercé mon cœur pour la vie.” (“The sea has lulled my heart for life”.)