Seen at IFFR, Rotterdam (Netherlands)

Format: Cinema

Director: Hokimoto Sora

Writer: Hokimoto Sora

Cast: Yamamoto Keisuke, Kawase Yota, Akatsuka Minako, Lily, Tanaka Min, Iwata Ryuto, Takahashi Yo

Japan 2016

85 mins

Hokimoto Sora’s debut Haruneko is a quirky, somewhat surreal oddity.

In the Bright Future strand, I happened upon the Japanese production Haruneko, described in the catalogue thus: ‘makes a valiant play for the accolade “weirdest film of the year”…’. That description being too much to resist, I headed out in the cold to take a look. In many ways, the film did not disappoint. It is set in a café run by a character known only as The Manager, with his elderly helper (a woman who knits) and a young man called Haru. People who wish to die – whether young or old, healthy or ill – come to the café and are then driven to a place deep in the woods, where the point of no return is on the other side of a tunnel. Once there, they can never change their mind about dying, and what they will find is that they will slowly disappear and be transformed into sound waves. Through the lens of a magic lantern show, aspects of their past lives are flashed onto a makeshift screen, with the show always culminating in a live musical number that features a children’s choir and a raucous rock band wearing white cat masks. Honest!

These plot conceits are justified by the overarching ‘point’ of the film that, in the end, ‘all that is left for us is to sing and dance.’ This may be so, but it is a bewildering and not wholly satisfactory cinematic ‘song and dance’.

The terrible beauty of films that incorporate tropes of the fantastic, the uncanny, the speculative and the carnivalesque is that, while we can applaud the director’s bravura and commitment to such narrative strategies, these strategies need to appear seamless, unself-conscious and wholly necessary, rather than artfully pretentious. Luis Buñuel is one of a handful who could accomplish this effortlessly. Director Hokimoto Sora seems laboured and less sure-handed in dealing with these strategies in his film. A tightrope walk of visual and textual precision in balancing these particular tropes – in contradistinction to losing balance to preciousness – is of fundamental concern to the would-be storyteller, and at times Sora seems to lose this balance. Even ‘difficult’ non-mainstream texts need a discernible and perceivable overall inner logic and clarity of vision – however diffuse this may be with regard to the storyline. That uncomfortable feeling of cringe-worthy pretentiousness did rear its head in me from time to time, especially in the musical sequences where the aesthetic seemed a little prosthetic.

But having vented that criticism, I applaud the vision and courage of Sora for approaching his story in this way – we certainly could do with more of that in young filmmakers – and would, nonetheless, recommend seeing for yourself this quirky, somewhat surreal oddity.

James B. Evans