“How long will it take?” asks the protagonist of Naomi Kawase’s “Still the Water” as he watches a goat being slaughtered. Many viewers will find themselves asking the same question as they sit through the Japanese helmer’s latest, a soporific drama devoted to thrashing out the meaning of love, life and death. Moving from her native Nara to the semi-tropical island of Amami-Oshima whence her ancestors hail, Kawase embraces nature worship and pompous philosophizing in her indulgently mannerist style, which, over the course of two hours, overwhelms a small yet potentially moving story of two teenagers dealing with separation within their families. The French-Japanese-Spanish co-production is assured a release in Gaul and Nippon, but chances for theatrical play elsewhere look iffy.
Following a typhoon that swept Amami-Oshima, an island between Okinawa and Kyushu, 16-year-old Kaito (Nijiro Murakami) spots a dead man with a tattooed back bobbing on the waves. This sight aggravates his ocean phobia, a condition that his classmate Kyoko (Jun Yoshinaga), who loves swimming, can’t understand. Nevertheless, she comes on to him and they begin dating.
In trying to cope with the fact that her shaman mother, Isa (Miyuki Matsuda), is terminally ill, Kyoko seeks the wisdom of the elderly chief shaman of Sano (who says every sentence twice), the gist of which is that Isa’s spirit will live on and watch over her daughter. Then, Kyoko goes to the hospital to visit Isa, who repeats the chief shaman’s idea in slightly different wording. Isa is brought home to spend her last days with her daughter and husband, Tetsu (Tetta Sugimoto). Scenes of the three teasing each other while lazing on the porch of their seaside bistro exude genuine warmth and poignancy; if only they weren’t bogged down by Isa’s mystic communion with their 400-year-old banyan tree.
Meanwhile, Kaito, who behaves sullenly around his working mother, Misaki (Makiko Watanabe, “The Mourning Forest,” “Love Exposure”), goes to Tokyo to visit his father, tattoo artist Atsushi (Jun Murakami, Nijiro Murakami’s real-life dad). As they hang out for a day like drinking buddies, their relaxed bond supplies the film with a lyrical vibe that, alas, is spoiled by another philosophical discourse when Atsushi uses terms of fate and human interconnection to explain why he and Misaki divorced.
On and on Kawase goes, padding her modest human drama with more pretentious yet hollow musings, such as the young lovers’ conversations with errant fisherman Kamejiro (Fujio Tokita), who epitomizes the role of the batty old sage with his views on natural cycles. The elemental nature of ancestral rituals is expressed in not one but two off-puttingly bloody scenes of Kamejiro slaughtering a goat.
Kawase’s exoticized celebration of Japan’s folkloric traditions reaches a patronizing and risible point when she stages Isa’s final hours like a tourist cultural performance, with old islanders ushering her departure by dancing and singing “shima-uta” to the accompaniment of the sanshin (a local variation of the Japanese stringed instrument shamisen). The insipid episode achieves a kind of bathos when, after an interminable session, the islanders say, “Shall we dance all six verses?”
Indeed, who the characters are and what they go through are expressed in a less oblique way than in her other works, to sometimes genuinely touching effect. Yet the director is also rehashing the same tropes from her past work, from pagan matsuri festivals to sacred trees, folklore and culture, as well as her perennial motif of death or disappearance as a sign of the mutability of the world. The first love of Kyoko and Kaito recalls her “Shara,” down to the cycling scenes, and except for an unintentionally campy finale that channels “The Blue Lagoon,” its portrayal of coming-of-age and sexual awakening present no breakthrough from the typical mode of generic youth romances.
Directing in her usual documentary-like style, accentuated by plenty of handheld lensing, Kawase elicits solid, naturalistic performances from her cast, despite the stilted lines they have to deliver. Toothsome Yoshinaga, who’s acted in a few films, is completely convincing as the rustic nymph, whereas non-pro Nijiro Murakami’s acting is more contrived and uneven. Yutaka Yamazaki’s lensing yields gorgeous arial shots of the island’s verdant mountain ranges and sparkling blue sea, though many of his shots are held several beats too long and his camerawork sometimes seems listless. While the music again features a sampling of Kawase’s favorite folk instruments and songs, the sound is monotonous in its reliance on crashing waves and howling winds.