Japanese Title: キツツキと雨
Romaji: Kitsutsuki to Ame
Release Date: February 11th, 2012
UK Release Date: January 28th 2013 (UK)
UK Film Distributor: Third Window Films
Running Time: 135 mins.
Director: Shuichi Okita
Writer: Shuichi Okita, Fumio Moriya
Starring: Koji Yakusho, Shun Oguri, Kengo Kora, Asami Usuda, Kanji Furutachi, Daisuke Kuroda, Kyusaku Shimada, Yoshiyuki Morishita, Tsutou Takahashi, Mitsuru Hirata, Masato Ibu, Tsutomu Yamazak
Ever since writing about this film last year I had been eagerly anticipating it, principally because it stars Koji Yakusho, a wonderful actor who has won my admiration through a series of performances in films by Kiyoshi Kurosawa. I was also impressed by the festival awards buzz it had acquired as it took the Special Jury Prize at the 2011 Tokyo International Film Festival and the Audience Award at Nippon Connection. The awards are richly deserved.
The Woodsman & the Rain opens in a dense forest outside Yamamura village. A lumberjack named Katsuhiko (Yakusho) is busy sawing a tree with a chainsaw. This short sequence reveals a gruff and pragmatic small town man who is comfortable working the land. He can even read the weather and predict when it will rain hence the title. He is soon distracted by the arrival of Torii (Furutachi), the assistant director of a film. Torii asks him to stop. “We’re in the middle of a take.” Katsuhiko does not quite understand movie jargon and he is not one easily swayed from his craft so Torii says, “We’re shooting a movie over there.” Katsuhiko understands now and asks “Can I prune?” Torii replies “If it isn’t noisy, sure.” Katsuhiko climbs a tree and starts cutting branches. From this vantage point both Katsuhiko and the audience see the town in distance with movie vans parked around.
Yamamura has been invaded by a small crew shooting a low-budget zombie film named Utopia. Katsuhiko is not concerned with any of this and goes about his work day routine and living very uneasily with his unemployed and directionless son Koichi (Kora) but a chance encounter with Torii on the road leads to Katsuhiko meeting the film’s director who is also named Koichi (Oguri), a man barely out of university and on his first major project. Pressure is getting to him and he suffers from severe lack of confidence which leaves Torii taking command and trying to make use of Katsuhiko’s local knowledge for some location scouting. This is just the first of many requests that the film crew ask of Katsuhiko.
Despite being initially unimpressed with what he sees (especially Koichi) Katsuhiko is soon sucked into the film and even gets to act as a zombie. He even strikes up an unlikely friendship with Koichi as he falls in love with the story of the movie and the experience of making it. The more deeply he becomes involved with the film the more enthusiastic he is and discovers that the director, despite lacking in confidence and finding the demands of movie-making a little too much, is extremely talented. The two forms an unlikely friendship and help each other overcome personal problems.
The Woodsman & the Rain is the third film directed by Shuichi Okita who also helped write the film. You would never know because this is a film that displays all that is great about Japanese film making from the lightness of directorial touch, the committed performance of the actors and the deftness of characterisation and script. Like Key of Life, everything is thoroughly thought out in every single way which makes everything pleasurable to watch.
The script mixes the film-within-a-film genre with a buddy movie where two complete opposites coming together to provide solutions to what troubles them. And what opposites they are! The use of big city folks clashing with down home country types is familiar but here the characters are original and charming and the script’s great characterisation provides assured arcs and a springboard for great performances from the actors which the film and provides the engine of the comedy.
The central clash of characters leads to hilarious moments when a belligerent Katsuhiko barks things at Koichi and looks dismayed at the results. Their first interaction has Katsuiko, looking dismayed at wasting a working day, barking “And what are you?” at Koichi. Upon finding him useless he recommends that Torii should fire him. After a long take on set as a zombie, Katsuhiko rounds on Koichi again, calling him a slacker and using his blunt personality to make the director run after people who should be running after him.
The film could have continued in the vein but it does not because underneath all of this is a more serious story as the two develop a friendship and help each other achieve existential growth that allows them to interact with the people around them.
It begins with a series of small but special scenes which conveyed hope, support and a sense of achievement. The first is when Katsuhiko sees his own performance on screen while watching the rushes from the day’s shoot. He feels out of place amongst the professional cast and crew and hugs his knees but gradually his wariness fades and he is absorbed into the magic of filmmaking. That Koichi is the one who is orchestrating this magic allows him to see past the reticent personality and get to the talent he possesses which cynical movie-folk are blind to. He gradually lightens up and opens up to the director about his impressions of the film in a small scene that marks a turning point as from this moment Katsu showing genuine interest gives the director some confidence. What unfolds then is a simple but effective story of two strangers who almost act as surrogate father/son and are able to cut to the quick of the problems they face and support each other.
Koji Yakusho gives a confident performance as Katsuhiko. He looks the part and handles the chainsaw brilliantly. Katsuhiko is far from the image of suave Tokyoite that I am familiar with. His gruffness and matter-of-factness provides tough exterior which hides uncertainty. Seeing him in zombie make-up and looking dazed after being asked to complete a series of actions and convey the ambiguity of being a zombie is highly amusing. His rough and aggressive and swagger give way to a more measured performance later in the film as his character gets to explore a softer side.
Shun Oguri is the real surprise for me. He blew away my scepticism about his acting abilities by playing a character who was a mess of hair, one eye peeking. His performance is a believable case of crippling fear far from the charismatic image I have of him. He zones out during quiet moments and when cast and crew besiege him with questions about performances he looks like he is either on the verge of an emotional breakdown or fleeing. His first lines of dialogue involve him saying monosyllabic words like yes or apologising for his existence with sorry. It is a humorous yet sympathetic performance.
Even minor characters feel fully fleshed out. The young and enthusiastic up and coming actress who is sick of her more cynical co-star, the assistant director Torii who exhibits jealousy as he has to pick up after the younger director in a brilliant outburst “You get to direct! Aren’t you happy?” Even the laconic cinematographer starts making suggestions of his own leading to the film improving. Indeed, the film becomes a play on the familiar notion of hard work and working together best exemplified by Katsuhiko who helps bring together the local community to provide extras in the film. They in turn begin to enjoy their roles and flex their theatrical muscles leading to more comedy as a diverse array of oddballs get together.
As well as great character based humour the use of the film within film genre and the presence of the film set in a small mundane town allows surreal humour to be used. The sight of zombies farming and the reaction of small town inhabitants to the chaos is amusing and charming. The director Okita milks the most out of these moments with direction which is assured. The action is captured perfectly from the use of dolly-shots that nudge the gaze of the audience in the right direction and medium close-ups that allow the audience to pick out the oddities amongst the normality but the focus is on a character’ behaviour in a scene and it is on perfectly captured allowing the audience to enjoy the actors essaying the characters. The aforementioned scenes of realisation – watching the rushes and confidence building – are achieved with close-ups and slow zooms on faces allowing the actors to act and convey changes to the inner lives of the characters and I found myself moved by them.
The Woodsman & the Rain is my film of the year. While it may not pack as much of an emotional punch, as other films, it is incredibly satisfying to watch with original characters, confident direction and committed acting. It is a story of two opposites helping each other break out of negative thinking by having an outsider offer a different perspective. It can stand up to multiple viewings. In fact, I am going to open the DVD case and watch it again.
Interviews with the Cast & Crew, Deleted Scenes, Theatrical Trailer
The interview with the cast and crew is taken from a Japanese TV special and lasts just shy of 30 minutes. It is very informative and a great extra. It provides background material about the characters and how the performances were generated and a history of Okita. The deleted scenes are interesting for what was cut out which is superfluous material that would have overcooked characterisation. This shows that Okita really is a talented filmmaker and one to watch.