Lacking the depth and rigor of his 2005 Nippon-set “Kamataki,” Claude Gagnon’s new Japanese road movie, “Karakara,” ambles along amiably enough, recounting the odyssey of a 61-year-old Quebecois professor seeking serenity in Okinawa after the death of his best friend, but instead finding adventure with a runaway Japanese wife. Yet little feels particularly spontaneous in this jaunt, the script’s ostensibly free-form learning experiences as pre-programmed as the trip first envisioned by the introverted academic. Nevertheless, strong cross-cultural performances, stunning landscapes and easy humor ensure modest returns for the pic, currently in release in Canada via Metropole, with Japanese dates to follow.
Pierre (Gabriel Arcand, pitch-perfect) has decided to pare down his life, having renounced sex and dedicated himself to achieving spiritual peace. But when Junko (Youki Kudoh, “Mystery Train,” “Memoirs of a Geisha”), a fortysomething Japanese woman, shows up at his hotel seeking refuge from an abusive husband, a monkey wrench is thrown into his plans. Pierre, fascinated with surfaces and textures, reluctantly agrees to let Junko accompany him on a visit to a nonagenerian weaver of banana fiber textiles who is considered to be a national treasure (played by noted bashofu expert Toshiko Taira).
Helmer Gagnon, who spent 10 years in Japan, discovers structure and rhythms in the techniques of traditional artisanal crafts. Pottery shaped his earlier “Kamataki”; here, to a much lesser extent, weaving holds sway as banana trees are cut, stripped, separated, dried and woven in a complicated, perfectly synched, masterfully executed process. But there are other stopping places for Pierre and Junko: rock-strewn seashores, an enormous, incredibly gnarled tree and long, winding country lanes. These timeless, tranquil oases directly contrast with the crass consumerism of much of Okinawa, where American bases still occupy 20% of the terrain.
Junko insists on her own quirky itinerary, at one point detouring to deliver two cases of beer to a friend’s lively 86-year-old grandmother (Toshi Moromi). She drags the solitary Pierre into working-class taverns and restaurants, chiding him for scorning the friendly overtures of local folk. Other encounters prove less inspirational, but Pierre starts to understand that intellectual isolationism may not provide the best path to enlightenment.
Indeed, the pic strives to reverse the usual Westerner-in-the-Orient stereotype, where the ambitious hero learns to slow down and smell the roses. Here he’s dragged, kicking and screaming, out of the rose garden and into the world at large. Gagnon’s Japan, though offering quaintly idealized nature and old-fashioned traditional crafts, nevertheless participates fully in a modernity that is less dependent on globalization and more concerned with ongoing cultural identity.
The title refers to a small pottery jug for liquor that supposedly makes a sound like “karakara” when emptied, the thankfully unvoiced implication being that the main characters await fulfillment.