A shipyard city reps a compelling port of call for the full range of human experience in the sprawling, humanistic Japanese meller “Sketches of Kaitan City,” the most impressive film yet from Kazuyoshi Kumakiri (“Freesia: Bullet Over Tears,” “Non-ko”). Despite its obvious strengths, this riveting film will have a hard time surviving outside Japan’s small arthouse niche when it launches in mid-December. Success is more likely on the Euro fest circuit.
In the fictional Hokkaido shipbuilding town of Kaitan (played by real-life port city Hakodate), local residents — mostly working-class stiffs for whom Japan’s postwar economic miracle never really happened — find that, in addition to another harsh winter, they must also face the downsizing of the town’s key industry due to depressed economic conditions. Episodic structure divides pic into five distinct tales set around New Year’s Eve, capped by a deft, criss-crossing finale that adds fitting finishing touches to two earlier installments.
Key figures include a proud young retrenched man (Pistol Takehara, “Freesia”) who can no longer support his sister (Mitsuki Tanimura, “Strangers in the City”); a resolute old woman (Aki Nakazato) who refuses to sell her home, even though the area is being rezoned for urban development; a cuckolded planetarium manager (Kaoru Kobayashi); the brutal, selfish owner of a gas cylinder business (Ryo Kase, “Letters From Iwo Jima”) who has alienated himself from community and family; and finally, a lonely streetcar driver (Shigeki Nishibori) whose Tokyo-based son (Masaki Miura, “Freesia”) doesn’t bother to visit, even though he has traveled from Japan’s main island to see his mother’s grave.
Life in Kaitan seems harsh, even cruel, but “Sketches of Kaitan City” is not bleak without purpose, and it draws one’s attetion to those comforts in life that must be taken, if only because they are so small. Early scenes, shot guerrilla-style, depict a real-life ship launch, presenting a perfect blend of reality and realism and reveling in the joy to be found in work itself. Elsewhere, the act of stroking of a cat becomes the embodiment of simple pleasure.
Takashi Ujita’s script builds in an assured manner, suggesting a combination of Raymond Carver’s keen eye for character with Ken Loach’s detached compassion for the working classes. Unlike most vignette-driven movies, Kumakiri’s film has no weak links; each of these powerful stories (taken from a collection of 18 by Yasushi Sato) acts as a narrative building block.
Likewise, there’s nothing superfluous about the helmer’s method; every shot offers new information, and is executed with wise economy. Thesps all give seamless perfs, the sterling local actors and amateurs virtually indistinguishable from the excellent professional imports.
Gray, dour lensing matches the sleet-ridden town and its dire economic prospects. Oppressive look, common in Japanese indie films, reps (for once) more than just an odd stylistic tic, perfectly mirroring the film’s thematic intentions. All other tech credits are pro on a low budget.