Japan, 2019, 77’, Japanese
Directed by: Watanabe Hirobumi
Script: Watanabe Hirobumi
Photography (b&w): Bang Woo-hyun
Editing: Watanabe Hirobumi
Music: Watanabe Yuji
Executive Producers: Watanabe Hirobumi, Watanabe Yuji
Production Company: Foolish Piggies Films
Cast:Watanabe Hirobumi, Hirayama Misao, Hisatsugu Riko
Date of First Release in Territory: TBA
Premiere status: International Premiere
In every Watanabe film but his first – the 2013 slacker comedy And the Mud Ship Sails Away... – Watanabe himself appears as an actor, delivering comic monologues on topics all and sundry, usually in a car to a non-speaking driver who may or may not be the hero.
It’s easy to assume that these characters reflect Watanabe’s real views and personality. Watanabe is a Beatles fan and so is his character in Party ‘Round the Globe, an employee at an electronics workshop who muses about his experiences at past Paul McCartney concerts and his expectations for the upcoming one in Tokyo he plans to attend. Examples could be multiplied.
What then to make of 7 Days (2015) and Cry (2019), two films in which Watanabe stars, but never utters a word? In the former film the hero tends cows and in the latter, pigs, but neither is a documentary account of life on the farm – or rather the animal barn.
Instead these films are exercises in style and form that acknowledge a basic, often-ignored fact about life for much of humanity: Its extreme sameness from day to day, hour to hour. When 7 Days, Watanabe’s second film, premiered at the Tokyo International Film Festival, the reaction from critics and programmers was divided. After the audience-friendly black humor of And the Mud Ship Sails Away..., the film felt to some like a retreat to auteurist self-indulgence – or an act of commercial suicide.
Shot in black-and-white the film followed the hero, played by Watanabe, through day after mundane day with nothing in the way of a conventional story and with long hikes through the emptiness of rural Tochigi standing in for drama.
When Cry premiered in the Japanese Cinema Splash section of the same festival four years later, other Watanabe films had been released in Japan and shown abroad. Though similar to 7 Days in structure and theme, the film inspired a different, more positive reaction. Meanwhile, the judges of the section awarded Watanabe a Best Director prize.
Why the change? By Cry it was clear that, film by film, Watanabe was creating his own world, with his latest being a kind of summation of his world view.
Like so many Watanabe heroes, the pig barn worker in Cry, played by the director himself, does the same thing every day without let-up or complaint. His daily round starts with a trudge across open fields as the wind howls and, on some days, the rain falls. It continues as he feeds row after row of snuffling pigs and, afterwards, shovels their manure into a wheelbarrow.
As the stoic hero, Watanabe performs these and other tasks as though he had been doing them for years, giving the film baseline credibility. Also, working with cameraman Bang Woo-hyun, a regular collaborator, he has created images of power and even beauty. Shots of pigs voraciously feeding and restlessly milling in their crowded pens are absent sentimentality if not a certain menace, intensified by the never-ending cacophony of the pig barn.
At the same time, Bang’s tight traveling shots of Watanabe walking, his broad back always squarely in the frame, bring order to the proceedings, while the staccato drumming of brother Watanabe Yuji’s score adds drama. And when, after his day’s labors, the hero eats his dinner with his elderly, equally mute grandmother, a sort of peace descends.
In Cry the everyday achieves a kind of absurd significance, be in snorts or silences.
Born in 1982 in Otawara, Tochigi Prefecture, Watanabe Hirobumi majored in Japanese literature in college and, after graduation, entered Japan Academy of Moving Images. His graduation project, the 41-minute film The Light Pig of August (Hachigatsu no Karui Buta), won the Grand Prix at the Fuji Film Lovers Festa, as well as other honors.
In 2013 he teamed with his brother Yuji, a film composer, to launch Foolish Piggies Films in his native Otawara. Their first production was also Watanabe’s first feature film, And the Mud Ship Sails Away... The film premiered at the 26th Tokyo International Film Festival and was screened widely abroad. It was released theatrically in Japan in December of 2014.
His second film, 7 Days, won the Best Picture prize in the Japanese Cinema Splash section of the 28th Tokyo International Film Festival. It was invited to many other festivals, winning the Nippon Vision Jury Award at the 17th Nippon Connection festival. After that Watanabe released at least one film a year, always with Watanabe Yuji as composer and Bang Woo-hyun as cinematographer.
But on his most recent film, I’m Really Good (2020), Watanabe served as his own cameraman. It is also his first feature in which his grandmother, who died last year at age 102, does not appear. After nearly a decade of consistency, with many of the same people behind and in front of the camera, Watanabe’s career seems to be reaching a turning point.
2013 – And the Mud Ship Sails Away...
2015 – 7 Days
2016 – Poolside Man
2018 – Party ‘Round the Globe
2018 – Life Finds a Way
2019 – Cry
2020 – Kamata Prelude (segment)
2020 – I’m Really Good