Upbeat dramas are rarely the stuff fest films are made of, but joyful Japanese values shine brightly in Naomi Kawase’s third feature, the story of a family, scarred by the loss of a child, that patches itself together with the help of a supportive community. Spilling over with colorful local rituals, customs and traditions, “Shara” is a love-letter to the director’s hometown of Nara, where her previous films “Suzaju” and “Hotaru” were also set. Her signature handheld camerawork and penchant for long takes are more or less kept in check here, letting the attractive, serious characters hold center stage. Pic’s lack of overt conflict and its determination to end happily didn’t make it the most ideal Cannes competition entry, but it has a pleasing dignity many viewers might enjoy in less demanding surroundings.
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The disappearance of little Shun’s twin brother Kei is presented in a single amazing opening shot done with a running handheld camera; it begins in an abandoned workshop and follows the two schoolboys as they race through the streets. The unity of the pretty town established by this very long take is interrupted by an abrupt change of mood, as Shun reaches home and his mother Reiko (played by helmer Kawase) asks him where his brother is. The boy has vanished mid-shot.
In the next scene, Shun (Kohei Fukunaga) is an introverted 17-year-old art student whose obsession with his missing twin is shown in the dark portrait he’s painting. His mother is pregnant again; his father Taku (Katsuhisa Namase) is occupied organizing the annual Basara street festival.
When police come to the house to ask them to identify Kei’s body, which has finally been found, Shun is the only one to become hysterical.
Instead of dissecting their reactions, film glides on to other events of that year. Shun is shyly seeing his charming neighbor Yu (Yuka Hyoudo), a girl his own age. Reiko is tending her garden while she waits for the baby to be born. And Taku succeeds in putting on a wonderful festival that brings the whole community together in a joyful day of sun and rain and dancing.
Kawase constructs the celebration using hypnotically repetitive shots of costumed dancers in which Yu is featured, while Shun and Taku look on joyfully. Coming after a Buddhist prayer and before a home birth scene, it emphasizes the role of community spirit in forging individual happiness.
Cast works together like a well-oiled stock company, with Katsuhisa Namase a stand-out as the father, skirting the edges of foolish enthusiasm for his pet project but brought to heel by his inner loss, which he finally manages to express.
Lensing credits are split between Yutaka Yamazaki and Yuzuru Sato, who together produce not just technical feats like the opening tracking shot, but memorable visuals like Yu dancing in the rain. The film is beautifully scored by the composer UA.