Japan Cuts: A Road


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As a very young filmmaking voice (he is aged twenty-three), and still in the process of studying film at Tokyo Zokei University, Sugimoto Daichi’s debut and title could not be more apt. His first film work is an exploration of himself as an actual filmmaker, an onscreen character, a young man finally realising his objective of studying filmmaking at an art college, a boy enamoured with catching lizards, contemplating the present and future with a mixture of hope and cynicism, and recalling the emotions of childhood. This narrative of an emotional self, or selves, extends to the film’s production credits: Sugimoto is not only the film’s writer-director but also its cinematographer, soundman, editor, and above all its lead actor, who culled from his personal experiences to write the screenplay (born from a project during his second year at university). The film thus also straddles the lanes between documentary and fiction. Apart from himself, Sugimoto cast his mother and friends to play themselves, all of whom are non-professional actors. Despite being non-professional actors, Sugimoto and his cast translate well their actual emotional bonds on screen, so much so that dialogue and the film overall have an frank and improvisatory feel. Following a series of conversations, daily life situations, and excursions among friends, Sugimoto presents a genuinely thoughtful look at navigating the tricky waters of adulthood whilst also trying not to lose one’s grip on the joie de vivre of childhood. While perhaps its documentary qualities may mislead one into thinking that there is a big message to be found or disappoint one in the absence of such, by film’s end such an idea goes out the window; instead, one ends up being caught up with and ultimately touched by the poignancy of the small, wondrous details of life, like capturing lizards and images, in the midst of forging one’s own path and timeline of desires.

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At film’s beginning, Daichi’s path/timeline is rather askew. On the one hand, he has friends who have opted to pursue life on a motorbike and the nomadic subculture of which it is a part. As he tells one such friend when he is coaxed into going out for a ride one evening, he sold his bike and wants to concentrate on getting into an art school and study filmmaking. On the other hand, another batch of friends have already gone through college entrance exams, from whom he therefore feels a bit removed when he reconnects with them at a small get-together. In the middle of studying for college entrance exams, he subtly, almost in a deadpan manner, bemoans to his mother about his lack of concentration or chance of a career and the probability of having part-time jobs for the rest of his life. And so goes his life: occasionally meeting up with his friends, studying when he can, and conversing with his mother.

With an understated sensitivity that matches the modest, quiet, and honest qualities of Daichi’s day-to-day life (and where he is in his life), the film simply captures him as he is, without trying to make it seem more or less complicated — or dramatic — than it is. Consequently, drawing out bits of his psychology are not outbursts of ‘alas, woe is me’ or tears but rather informal conversations with a friend or his mother. The most telling of these conversations occurs after he discovers a grade school-era photo of him and his friends in a dictionary at home that his mother had saved. With his mother kindly listening, seeing the photo transports him to a train of thought about his age and the lack of excitement about things in general. In contrast, he continues, during the time when he was in grade school and terribly interested in lizards, he would even tremble; such was the high degree of excitement and pleasure that looking for lizards gave him. As Daichi, Sugimoto delivers the lines in an almost even, normal tone of voice, with only a few nuances to emphasise the differences in perspective between adulthood and childhood and the frustration that the knowledge of these differences bring; such delivery would appear to waste the emotional thrust of the dialogue. But as the director, Sugimoto shot the scene in a long take of himself/Daichi in three-quarters profile in a medium close-up. It is only in the course of witnessing Daichi’s train of thought develop without cuts that the emotion contained within the dialogue seeps through to the spectator.

The aforementioned shot that isolates Daichi from even the person he is speaking with, as he expresses his kind of existential bind, is perhaps emblematic of the film’s docufictionary portrait of a self. Though he gets into an art college and later makes new friends, another empathetic ‘isolating’ moment is when he misses the art college enrollment ceremony/orientation and briefly stands alone, among other new students. On the surface, it is an ordinary situation. But in the context of the film, it registers in such a considerate and reflective manner the overall solitude of adulthood, despite the family and friends around oneself, and the process of carving out an independent life in accordance with one’s ambitions and desires — or sometimes, in contrast to them.

The lines between documentary and fiction become further blurred near the end of the film, when Daichi shoots footage of his friends — and eventually himself — getting together to look for and attempt to capture lizards for his documentary project. For about ten minutes, his rough sketch of a film becomes the film itself, multiplying Sugimoto’s gaze at himself, his life past and present, with friends, jubilating over lizards and images, mirroring the opening footage of Daichi as a boy.


About Author

Film lecturer at CSULB. Transnational, multilingual, migratory cinephilia.