Masahiro Kobayashi's "The Rebirth": Film As Purgatory By C.S. Roy

in 59th Locarno International Film Festival

by Charles-Stéphane Roy

One of the most common rules in storytelling is to build up dramatic elements that will lead audiences to empathize with the characters, and drive the plot to its unavoidable and logical end. Neither of these rules is followed in The Rebirth (Ai no yokan), Masahiro Kobayashi’s 10th film, an impressive yet conceptual storytelling statement about two parents trying to cope, both individually and together, with the loss of their own children.

Filmmaking is rarely as harshly intellectualized as it is here, yet the effects of its perilous narrative device — repetition ’til you drop — build slowly but efficiently on the viewer, reaching its full emotional scope layer by layer with enough wit and assurance to keep you awake even as you watch these two loners work, eat and wash up for almost two full hours. Still, the Locarno audience’s restlessness during the screening of The Rebirth suggests the film could be seen either as the ultimate elegy of boredom, or as some perverse director’s self-aware fantasy. (The film nevertheless won the festival’s top prize, the Golden Leopard.)

But as tough as the experience of following the daily chores and uneventful routines of the characters might be — and it obviously is — this could be one of the most accomplished “unrewarding” films ever made.

The film starts by introducing us to Noriko and Junichi — both parents of young teenagers who were involved in a cruel homicide — in interviews. While the killer’s mother is all guilt, wearing sunglasses while confessing her state of mind to an off-screen psychiatrist, the victim’s father, scarred by the loss of his daughter, affects a tough and detached attitude during the initial discussion, showing no mercy whatsoever in regard of the mother, wishing to never meet her.

Five minutes later, the film moves into an on-location, Dardenne-style rendition of each character’s tasks and environment. Luckily enough for both of them, the young woman works at the old man’s cafeteria after he left his urban career in pursuit of a simpler, more peaceful life, working in a rural metal foundry. His basic daily schedule consists of eating, driving, working, eating lunch, coming back home, bathing, dining and reading Solzhenitsyn’s “A Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovitch”. Not far from him, the girl walks and works in the home-block kitchen like a zombie, with limited energy and disincarnate devotion. Her main tasks are peeling potatoes, cooking omelettes, serving soup and washing dishes.

Kobayashi, who plays the man, depicts these parallel routines in the most mechanical, unenthusiastic manner possible. Repetition is the keyword in The Rebirth; and once in a while, the two characters’ paths merge with mixed results. These moments are depicted as naturalistically as possible, observing the way in which one might move through a small common area and avoid a staff member or a neighbor; middle shots and wide angles are used to immerse each character within his or her respective environment. It is a tactic as deceptively simple and realistic as it is ultimately experimental; the progression of their reaction is never showed in a causal way — as when they open a line of communication by leaving one another cell phones — neither the result of a previous openness or some kind of deliberate decision, but rather in a random way, like a rond-point: both characters know what to do ultimately, they just don’t know how or when.

The entire structure — and purpose — of The Rebirth revolves exactly around its means and timing, avoiding any linear or logical desire for progression. As I haven’t seen any of Kobayashi’s previous efforts, it’s hard to know if this level of achievement is the result of a long-term aesthetic agenda or the director’s deliberate departure from old narrative habits. Seeing the film without any preconception, it seems that Kobayashi has found an as yet unexplored area of conventional drama — a study of true will based on instinct and hesitation, rather than the classic blend of evolution, luck and the characters’ own desire to change. Ironically, Kobayashi structured the film so that the interview sequences are mostly at its beginning; these are the sequences felt the most staged, when compared to the realism of the film’s midsection. But instead of the characters’ regular lives stopping so they can live this new story (as is the case with 99% of dramas), The Rebirth maintains those lives in the drama, the better to emphasis the weight and the dead-end perception of moving through an ordinary, organized existence when one damaged soul needs space and time to start over again.