Japanese film critic-turned-director Makoto Shinozaki’s first feature, “Okaeri,” focuses its hypnotic gaze on a young woman afflicted to extremes by loneliness, forsaken ambitions and a communicational impasse in her marriage. The couple’s emotional maladies are explored with understatement and intelligence in this unhurried minimalist tract. While some fest audiences may find it slow and remote, many others certainly will be drawn in long enough to appreciate the drama’s odd poignancy and singular rhythms.
The film’s opening section deliberately sketches the stagnant urban existence of former child pianist Yuriko (Miho Uemura), who increasingly shows signs of anxiety and mental frailty. Three years into her marriage to caring but distant schoolteacher Takashi (Susumu Terajima), she appears to have been stripped of her identity. She sits at home all day doing typing assignments, becoming quietly and inexorably unhinged.
Interrogated about the destination of her morning walks, she claims to be patrolling the neighborhood, which she says is threatened by an organization hatching a conspiracy plot. When Takashi follows her, she jumps into a parked car and drives off. Following her arrest, the police suggest she is dangerously paranoid and should be hospitalized.
Takashi’s strange, almost calm acceptance of Yuriko’s unbalanced state gives the film a steadily more rewarding dynamic. Unwilling to abandon her by having her committed, he reveals surprising reserves of tenderness, checking into a clinic with her and collapsing from nervous exhaustion when they return home. Apparently restored to health, Yuriko then begins dutifully caring for Takashi before casually stepping out to resume patrol duty.
The story’s conclusion touches unexpectedly resonant chords, introducing a possibility of hope only when husband and wife have succumbed to emotional desolation. Without straying from his darkly introspective course, Shinozaki hints at restored contact between them and a possible exit from the psychological prisons of home, career and conjugal responsibility.
Direction is stark and uncluttered, chronicling the couple’s drama in extremely long takes, mostly with static, low-angle, Ozu-style camerawork. Soundtrack also is arrestingly spare, with music limited to brief excerpts from Yuriko’s childhood piano recitals. “Okaeri” won the Fipresci (international critics’) award at the Thessaloniki fest this month and is to screen in Berlin’s Forum section in February.