Domains 王国 (あるいはその家について)  (2019) Dir: Natsuka Kusano

Domains    王国(あるいはその家について)  Domains Film Poster

王国 (あるいはその家について) Ookoku (aruiwa sono-ka ni tsuite)

Running Time: 150 mins.

Release Date: 2019

Director:  Natsuka Kusano

Writer: Tomoyuki Takahashi (Screenplay)

Starring: Asami Shibuya, Tomo Kasajima, Tomomitsu Adachi, Ryu Kenta

A friendship torn asunder by the death of a child is material fit for a melodrama full of meltdowns and confession but in Domains, director Natsuka Kusano offers a dissection of a relationship in an unconventional form that proved so hypnotic, it became one of the most absorbing film experiences I have watched in years. (slight spoilers)

Domains, produced as an original video work for the Aichi Arts Center, is Kusano’s follow-up to her debut Antonym. For her second film, she re-teamed with Antonym’s writer Tomoyuki Takahashi (Touching the Skin of EerinessHappy Hour) to craft a structurally inventive way in which to tell this story as they utilise repetition and variation to slowly build out the emotional dimensions of the relationship.

The opening scene of the film features a woman named Aki (Asami Shibuya) reading an affidavit in which she confesses to the murder of her friend’s daughter to a police detective. With the facts of the case established up front, the mystery surrounding Aki’s motive is centred. It is explored in an experimental fashion as we are given a few key scenes in the run-up to the tragedy and dialogue rich with treasured and bitter memories. In carefully nuanced performances, the actors repeat these scenes and dialogue, giving slight variations on them over the course of the film in what appear to be various instances of rehearsals that are layered over each other and intercut together.

The first layer is a table-read in a studio space with a camera placed in a neutral position capturing the actors in medium shots as they sit next to each other with their water bottles and scripts. It is here that we re-join Aki at a time before the crime and are introduced to her friend, Nodoka (Tomo Kasajima) and Nodoka’s husband Naoto (Tomomitsu Adachi). The second layer is in another rehearsal space but the camera is more dynamic as it takes on different views, often close-ups. The actors are relaying the same lines of dialogue but with greater emotion and without relying on the script so much. It is as if they are inhabiting the characters with costumes and blocking/body language that suggest the final performance. The third layer is where the actors have fully inhabited their roles and are on location.

Far from having a distancing effect due to the display of artificiality, Kusano’s choice of framing the story as a journey from documentary-style observation to more involved drama has a cumulative effect of enveloping the viewer in the performances as we concentrate on parsing through the variations of repeated lines and take note of changes in behaviour.

As we get closer to a more naturalistic depiction of the relationship between the adults, we really get to understand the tensions as details of Nodoka’s stifling life, Naoto’s controlling behaviour and jealousies over the closeness of the women emerge. Quite startling is Tomomitsu Adachi’s change as he morphs from an actor perusing his script and waiting to speak his lines to a stern patriarch while Tomo Kasajima becomes meeker. Added to this are the glimpses of the interior and exterior locations central to the story, the addition of props and places acting as signifiers for Nodoka’s home life (a bird box), a child (toys and sandals scattered around), and an emotional state of mind (stifling environments like narrow streets, a run-down train station that is a terminus) as we infer her freedoms have been reduced by domesticity. This gives the facts of the case that much-needed emotional dimension that becomes enthralling and ultimately heart-breaking as Aki’s own viewpoint is fleshed out.

We are interested in the “why” of Aki’s actions and we see this is intertwined with the fate of her friend and a childhood memory and folk song that is the most repeated bit of text. The reminiscence of setting up a kingdom, or domain, with Nodoka comes to be seen as a stabilising force for Aki especially as we learn about her struggles professionally, her sense of isolation, and see Naoto’s controlling nature and his discrimination against Aki based on stigma surrounding mental health. This stable domain is brought crashing down as Aki learns that Nodoka’s domestic life has trapped her friend in another domain. In a confused and emotionally-driven way, Aki was driven to help “her” friend while reclaiming a position she felt usurped from. 

The film begins with one confession, all concrete facts, and ends with another where Aki tries to articulate just what led her to commit murder and that is all abstract emotion. To outside observers with no connection to the two women, it may not satisfy, but the film’s constant returning to key scenes and details and compelling and nuanced acting that expands of the emotional dimensions of the story, a more complex picture of Aki’s life emerges and as she talks about her struggles professionally, a state which offers a parallel Nodoka’s domestic troubles we get a pretty rich examination of these characters.

In an experimental and unexpected way, Kusano and Takahashi manage to give a new take on what may have been a formulaic story while also addressing themes surrounding the subjection of women in Japan and by the end, after it has wormed its way into the imagination, it leaves one in awe at its audacity and originality and stellar acting.

If you have the time, you can watch the film for free (with English/French subtitles) via Cinémathèque Française until February 01st.

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