Naomi Kawase's "Hanezu": Rocks and Reds

in 64th Cannes Film Festival

by José Carlos Avellar

Following the screening of two competition films in Cannes, the films’ directors both made interesting observations about the creative process. First was a film with a difficult title to translate: Naomi Kawase’s Hanezu no tsuki. Difficult to translate not only because Japanese language has many different words to say “moon” — tsuki is one of those words. Difficult also because Kawase uses here an old and almost unknown Japanese word for “red”, for a pink red: hanezu. She found this word in the collection of poems from the eighth century, Manyoushu. So, “Hanezu no tsuki”, could possibly be translated as “Soft Moonlight over a Fleeting Red” — maybe not exactly by those words, but from an image we can visualise from those words. On the same level, perhaps, to correctly translate the feelings we get from Hanezu we could try to connect the bike of Kayoko in Kawase’s film with the bike of Cyril in Dardenne’s The Boy with a Bike (Le gamin au vélo).

Let’s compare a quote from Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne about their actors and the shoot in the press conference of The Boy with a Bike, with a similar and at same time different quote by Naomi Kawase in the press conference of Hanezu. The Dardenne brothers said that they actually do not hold rehearsals, they discuss the characters with their (almost always) non professional actors and then do many takes of each single scene. They did so many takes, they explained, that the young Thomas Doret became very upset. He plays Cyril, the kid on the bike chasing the father. He was afraid he was not acting correctly, and that for this reason the directors were shooting the same action again and again.

“He started to dream about a scene he could do in one single shot. But that is the way we work, doing many retakes of each shot in search of the most natural and expressive actor’s gesture, the ones he starts doing when he stops acting and start just being there,” explained Luc Dardenne.

A few days later, in the press conference for Hanezu, Kawase said that she also didn’t do rehearsals with her actors but always used just one single take for every scene.  

“My film was made in Nara, but the actors came from Tokyo,” she explained. “So, I invited them to came to Nara a month before shooting, just to be used to the people, the landscape and typical food of the city. Once they became integrated to the environment, they could almost forget the screenplay and move in a natural way. We do not have rehearsals and I prefer to shoot the scenes with no retakes. The actors create the characters in the relationship with the surrounding conditions, I try to not interfere. Only before shooting we have long discussions to establish a connection between them and the city atmosphere. It is the environment that makes the actor.”

Let us take not holding rehearsals, working with non professional actors, and searching for a spontaneous look as the main concerns of Jean-Pierre and Luc’s film (the figures in the environment) and the main concerns of Naomi’s film (the environment as the central figure). Many retakes to achieve the most natural gesture in the actors, to make fiction look as close as possible documentary. Just one single take, as in the documentary practice, to not lose the natural gesture of discovering nature’s beauty. In the Dardenne film, a prose narrative, a story where the poetic level is in the characters’ identity. In Kawase’s, a poetic recital and, less than a story, we have just an outline to be seen as if we were looking at a landscape.

“In cinema we used to see the landscape as a place where things happen,” said Kawase. “In my films the thing that happens is the landscape. People are a kind of support cast. The protagonist, the central character, is the landscape”.

Stones rolling on a conveyor belt. A whispered recital on the rivalry between two mountains, the mount Kagu and the mount Minimashi, for the love of the mount Unebi. The close up of a spider net. A small piece of mirror to show the birds in the nest. The hands of Takumi making wood sculptures. The hands of Tetsuya making food. Insects moving on a rock. Kayoko in the bike. The sun setting over the mountain. The rain in the forest. A soldier of the Second World War with the love letter he never sent. The delicate light of the moon in the night. The still more delicate red dyes in Kayoko’s scarf.

The images here are not exactly made and connected to tell a story. Each one has an almost independent life in the sense they do not present themselves as part of an action, as something that lets us see the real meaning of the scene. The frame is not the place where thing happens, it is the thing that happens. The real expressive gesture is the one of the camera, the lighting, the colours (the hanezu red, for Kawase, “a central colour in life, maybe the first one that men pay attention to: the colour of blood and the one we use to represent the fire and the sun”) and the frame. The rocks in the belt are a good example.

Seeing the stones rolling in a very big close-up, jumping off the film over the screening room (as once happened with the train of Lumière), in the beginning and almost at the end, puts the viewer in the right position to follow the whispered poem of mountains, colours, forest and men: the film is digging in the Japanese tradition, just as one of the characters, Yo-Chan, an is an archaeologist working in the site of Asuka, an imperial capital in the sixth and seventh centuries. Maybe it is possible to say that Hanezu is made by a fusion of those stones and mud in the belt with the delicate the thin red scarves made by Kayoko.

Among the good films we saw in the Festival (Aki Kaurismäki’s Le Havre; Nuri Bilge Ceylan’s Once upon a Time in Anatolia (Bir Zamanlar Anadolu’da; Pedro Almodóvar’s The Skin I Live in (La piel que habito); and the already mentioned The Boy with a Bike, this one written, photographed and directed by Naomi Kawase was certainly the most creative of all. Twice awarded by FIPRESCI (Genpin, in San Sebastian, 2010, and Hotaru/Firefly, Locarno, 2000) Kawase keeps working in Hanezu time and space as if fusing the hardness of a rock and the softness of a red dye. In the open bridge between the cinema and the world we live in, we have here a director that looks a little more to nature than to film tradition to make cinema.