Haruneko はるねこ Dir:  Sora Hokimoto (2016)




Running Time: 85 mins.

Release Date: December 16th, 2016

Director:  Sora Hokimoto

Writer: Sora Hokimoto (Screenplay),

Starring: Yohta Kawase, Lily, Min Tanaka, Lion kawai, Minako Akatsuka, Ryuto Iwata, Keisuke Yamamoto, Yo Takahashi,

Website IMDB

Produced by experienced writer/producer Takenori Sento and producer/director Shinji Aoyama (Eureka), this curious mash-up of a film is the distinctive debut of Sora Hokimoto and the type of thing that will most-likely only be seen at festivals and that’s a shame because it is strikingly beautiful and haunts the memory.

Essentially a supernatural musical, the movie takes place deep in a forest where there is a cosy and well-furnished café nestled in a grove of trees by a river. It is run by The Manager (Yamamoto), an earnest young man who makes pour-over coffee. He lives with an elderly woman (Lily) and a boy called Haru (Iwata). The café is an idyllic place and a refuge for anyone who wants to die. These people vary, good and bad but they all want to escape something.

Although we never really get to know many of the characters arriving at this supernatural way station, we get glimpses of their nature through their behaviour when they meet The Manager – desperate acts of violence, sullen resignation, the glazed look from some psychosis or guilt. The manager doesn’t judge his customers. Instead, he grinds coffee beans, replaces filters, pours boiling water, and serves drinks while people contemplate things and finally commit to shuffling off their mortal coil and into the ether. Once they are ready, The Manager drives them in a white Mini to a misty place deep in the forest, where they venture amongst the mist-shrouded trees and gradually disappear as they are transformed into sound waves.

This is all very mysterious and the process of these people disappearing is even stranger because it seems that the forest is alive with sentient trees. Or perhaps they are the voices of people who have already turned into sound waves. These voices can be heard by all who enter the forest with a desire for death and they drive people into a frenzy.

Who the owners of these voices are is left largely to our imagination but they take on human form in another reality. Indeed, they are an audience watching more lost souls venture into the real forest and disappearing into their dimension where the forest is an artificial stage with chairs and garish lighting, mist machines and cardboard trees. The suicides become actors on this stage offering entertainment. Brief bursts from their pasts are shown during a strange magic lantern show before a final death amongst the cardboard trees.

This is a regular place we visit as Hokimoto ignores rules of time and space and cuts between two locations with actors performing the same actions on stage and on location from one second to the next, blurring the line between the world of death and even memory. The voices are an invasive presence that can be heard everywhere and at any time once they get into a person’s head.

The theatricality of things is put front and centre from the very start with non-diegetic music and sounds played frequently and the forest being a real location and a stage set which the film regularly cuts between. The person who runs the cafe is our host in both places. While the cafe is subdued, the stage is a raucous party. There are regular performances by a children’s choir dressed as angels and a pop-band wearing bulbous white papier-mache cat heads. Because, as the film decrees: “All that is left for us is to sing and dance.” 

The theatricality is enhanced by other features such as a stagehand with two square hardwood sticks called hyoshigi (clappers seen and heard in kabuki plays) who strikes the sticks against each other making a distinctive sound called Ki which is used to create cues for performances. Intertitles between sequences, the stage forest lit up by different-coloured lights and the aforementioned musical performances. Just as people get absorbed by the forest, audiences will surely get absorbed by this mysterious play on screen.

It isn’t all innocent. The audience perform Kakegoe, as they cheer and jeer the people in the forest and get involved in a raucous musical performance mocking suicides. People can hear and react to the sounds and the sounds react back, a conversation taking place, mocking, enticing, debating, the forest forcing troubled souls to confront sins. The emotional violence in the forest is terrible. The after-party on the stage is great as people dance joyously. The film becomes both beautiful and heart-rending as the reality (is it?) of the forest is revealed and the music reaches a crescendo. As alluring as the forest is, we come to understand that the place is a charnel house.

As horrifying as the final image is, the real tragedy isn’t necessarily the suicides but the souls stuck at the way station and their memories. The Manager, haunted by memories of his father (Min Tanaka) while acting as a ferryman for fresh souls of the dead like Charon in Greek mythology. Charming little Haru and his beautiful sister Kaori (Akatsuka) who compose the song that is the film’s beautiful theme, disappear and reappear, stuck in the liminal space that is the cafe and forest, waiting for each other for so long. The tragedy is too much, the ending heartbreaking.

When you know what bad things are, though, you can celebrate all of the good things!

“Everybody dead and living, let’s sing and dance.”

This was the first film I saw in a cinema in 2017 a few days after I arrived in Osaka. It had caught my attention when I wrote a round-up of Japanese films at Rotterdam International Film Festival and when I was told by a co-worker it would be screened at Cine Nouveau in Nishi-ku I leapt at my chance to see it. I had wandered close to that area but not through it during my search for cinemas in Osaka. This would be my chance to dive deep into the area since it was a 55 minute walk from my place in the south of the city.

I found that the further north I proceeded, the classier the areas got and the quieter. Walking along the river was a great way to orientate myself. Once I got to the cinema I found that it was a tiny building just off the shotengai and it lacked any shining lights, colourful billboards, and glamorous ticket booths. I might have missed it had it not been for the katakana name on the side, the posters. The interior was it was subdued and kind of classy. It could be mistaken for a bookshop thanks to the shelves groaning with books and stacks of magazines. There was that atmosphere you find at the ICA in London but far more subdued. Perfect for watching the film. I started writing this review five days later.

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