"Kamataki" The Place of Art By Chris Fujiwara
Amid a 22-film competition that abounded in reasons for despair, one of the very few pleasures of the 29th Montreal World Film Festival was Kamataki by Claude Gagnon. It took not only the FIPRESCI jury’s prize but also the Best Director award (by a jury presided over by Theo Angelopoulos), the People’s Choice award, the award for most popular Canadian film, and the Ecumenical Prize.
The plot is simple. When we first meet Ken (Matt Smiley), a Canadian in his early twenties, he has recently survived a suicide attempt that was motivated by the sudden death of his father. Ken’s mother has thought it best to pack him off to Japan to apprentice for his uncle, Takuma (Tatsuya Fuji, star of Oshima’s In the Realm of the Senses), a renowned potter. At first Ken is guarded, closed, and resentful. During a drunken night out with his free-living uncle, the unsolicited attentions of a woman of easy virtue bring out an ugly, moralistic side in Ken, who proceeds to crack up Takuma’s car. After this incident, Ken’s attitude changes: he takes an increased interest in his uncle’s work, and a suspenseful vigil at a days-long kiln firing confirms Ken’s triumph over his private demons.
What are these demons? What are the mainsprings of Ken’s inner conflict? A great strength of Gagnon’s film is its reticence on these questions, to which lesser authors would have lumbered to supply answers. Kamataki is a film about redemption and knowledge, in which the stakes are not spelled out but must be in part discerned, in part supplied by the viewer, who must fill the gaps of the film with his or her own understanding of the places of art and eroticism in human life.
One thinks of another film of which the same can be said: Renoir’s The River, to which Kamataki is a worthy successor (and a contemporary film that can stand comparison with a Renoir is a rare event). Both films portray a similar itinerary, by which a young man’s stubborn, hopeless incomprehension, his refusal to be moved or subdued by a strange environment, and his insistence on the separateness of the ego, with its cracks and wounds, are driven away before a more total force. Whereas Renoir’s film offered water as the supreme embodiment of this force, in Gagnon’s film, the most powerful element is fire: the fire of the kiln, which Ken must keep tending at the risk of ruining his uncle’s work.
Any overstatement, any indulgence in the obvious, any hint of crowd pleasing or of New Age-y, Orientalist condescension, and Kamataki would have lost its balance. But Gagnon avoids the clichés to which the theme of the relationship between a wise old Asian artist and a rudderless Western youth might have invited him. What makes this treatment of the theme surprising is that the two men seem at first to have so little in common, so little need for each other, and so little potential to stimulate each other. As a result, it’s with all the more interest and pleasure that we watch the tensions in their relationship become productive.
Kamataki is made with great visual authority. There are no broad flourishes of style; instead, along with a mastery of ellipsis and condensation that sometimes recalls Imamura, there is a sustained subtlety of emotion that becomes deeply satisfying. The climactic sequence of the kiln firing is shot and cut with a devastating precision that sums up all that this film has to say (which is considerable) about beauty, art, and the love of work.