Masahiro Kobayashi's "The Rebirth": All the Things We Don't Notice By Eero Tammi

in 18th Tromso International Film Festival

by Eero Tammi

“It is the lives we encounter that make life worth living.” (Guy de Maupassant)

Masahiro Kobayashi’s The Rebirth (Ai no yokan) is an exceptionally brave, uncompromising and amusing film that seems to make a powerful impact on roughly one out of ten people who see it. Three or four out of ten will most likely walk out of the theatre during the first hour. And the rest seem to respect the original ideas the director has but feel unsatisfied with the length and slow tempo of the film.

Kobayashi has succeeded in something that is at the same time an ambitious experiment and a very self-conscious creation by an intuitive person who knows exactly what he is doing — and in the end probably doesn’t care about the viewers who turn their backs on him. Every filmmaker wants an audience but in a sense The Rebirth is one of those films that prove their strength in not belonging to anyone. The Rebirth relies on a very careful and fragile musical structure that only opens up to an observant viewer. The fact that the film is almost silent makes it even more interesting in its musicality.

Kobayashi turns his camera on people who are completely unnoticed in the world surrounded by them. They seem to live a life of no change. One day after another are almost exactly alike. The work they do, the route they take home, all the tiny everyday acts they are used to, are shot in precise detail. The film has elements of a Maupassant story, and as cinema it feels like a combination of Frederick Wiseman’s early behaviorist documentaries and Carlos Reygadas’ courageous features Japan (Japón)and Battle in Heaven (Batalla en el cielo). But the repetition of situations is taken to a level of its own. It goes beyond boring — to a level where everything slowly starts to live again. Small changes in situations start to give the film a poetical logic. The rhythm of the film becomes more important than our concern for the psychological state of the characters.

In its own way The Rebirth is a story of two isolated people who practically have stopped speaking. Kobayashi himself plays a man whose teenage daughter has been stabbed to death by an another girl from the same school. Makiko Watanabe plays the mother of the aggressor who has been sent to an institute. This is all we know about their backgrounds as the film opens with both of the characters having discussions with the same therapist — the moment before they both fall into their silence.

For some reason the characters end up working very near each other and seeing each other daily from a distance. The man works in a factory and eats in a restaurant where the woman prepares the meals. They do not speak but sometimes they stare at each other. They seem to share some sort of a strange connection, and as the film moves on we realize that they are even dependent on one another. Earlier the man has made a choice of being in no contact with the mother of the murderer of his child. He only wants to work, read, eat and sleep. We see him entering the factory and putting his working gloves on at least ten times. And because of the woman, everyone watching this film will learn how to make an omelet.

I remember Frederick Wiseman telling me in an interview that in one particular scene he shot in a fish factory, with cameras following the way all the machines worked, he wanted to edit the sequence as if it were a dance. Something very similar is in Kobayashi’s approach to the whole film. It’s constructed as if it were a dance. Or a poem. He uses a lot of long takes, very rarely edits inside a sequence, but how carefully he creates the tension through repetition and how he plays with the tempo, that’s what finally grabs your attention. Kobayashi wants to fascinate the viewer through composition – which is maybe not easy to notice.

The most important thing is that The Rebirth doesn’t feel in any way a mechanical or cold film. Underneath it is a very emotional and even sentimental look at people who have lost contact with their feelings and maybe even lost the will to live. Kobayashi’s idea of going to the level of “boredom” where everything seems to be totally dead, and then starting to watch everything grow again, comes close to Reygadas’ Japan. But unlike Reygadas, and closer to Wiseman, Kobayashi has given a lot of thought to the essence of comedy.

Some might suspect the film is unintentionally comic, but actually the director is not making a stone faced serious film at all. On the contrary, understated humor, many very amusing bits, are the salt of the film. One sign of the film’s awakening — rebirth, if you like — is the humoristic tone the film gets through repeating the same situations over and over again. Every once in a while Kobayashi also starts staring at the audience while having lunch — which seems as if the character just doesn’t mind being watched by the camera that could be waiting for something to happen. At the same time, knowing that the character is played by the director himself, it starts to feel as an ironic comment on the freedom of the artist.

And all the time, despite the audience’s reactions, to an observant eye, the film is in a constant state of change. The length of the sequences, the rhythmic play and also all those little things that alter every time Kobayashi repeats the “same shot” or the “same scene”… That’s what you can enjoy. It’s the thing that saves you. It’s life.