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Blood and Transmigration
Shinji Aoyama’s Tomogui (The Backwater)

Jinshi Fujii
Associate Professor, Faculty of Letters, Arts and Sciences, Waseda University (School of Humanities and Social Sciences)

More than any other director, Shinji Aoyama has taken a challenging stance towards his films being viewed lightly. His masterpiece Eureka has a remarkably long running time of 217 minutes. It used a special filming method in which it was filmed in monochrome and then burned onto color positive film—of course, the true value is not conveyed unless viewed on film. Indeed, Aoyama’s films have distanced individuals who seek to make film into a safe consumer product. His attitude of almost daring theatres to show his films has created the anti-epochal standard size of Tsuki-no-Sabaku (Desert Moon), the explosive, ear-drum shattering sound of Eli, Eli, Lema Sabachthani, and even though it was unintentional, the unreleased and wondrous Koorogi, a film which cannot be viewed. Through such extremes, Aoyama has directly challenged society’s relaxed consciousness that films can be viewed simply by absently gazing at them.

However, Aoyama’s stance seems to have changed in recent years. Of course, it is unthinkable that he has bent his conviction. Still, in Tokyo Koen, Aoyama watches over the young cast and staff, encouraging their growth while filming. From this form, Aoyama cannot help but feel the niche which comes only to a director who has accumulated both age and experience. Perhaps this form can be described as a deepened trust in the process of filming itself, something that, when combined with good performance, lets an outstanding work almost film itself. In this form, the director’s ego is diluted. Indeed, Aoyama’s recent works have an increased degree of transparency.

Now, Aoyama has filmed his new work Tomogui (The Backwater). The film is based on the Akutagawa Prize-winning novel by Shinya Tanaka. This tale of sex, violence, blood and inheritance seems to be a perfect fit for Aoyama. However, the form of this film differs greatly from Aoyama’s previous work. It may very well be the first time that Aoyama has filmed a “Japanese film” with such distinguished presence. Undoubtedly, this presence arose when portraying the anguish of the film’s main character, a man who is unable to come to grips with his father’s blood flowing through his veins—something which he cannot deny. Just as the fate of the main character is more than simple repetition or rejection, I believe that Aoyama has succeeded in transmigrating the tradition of Japanese film through something more than mere repetition. A typical manifestation of this is the thunderous fierce rain which falls at the film’s climax. Compared to the situation of film today, there is no need to explain the luxury of this scene. Although filmed with a low budget, all of Tomogui’s resources are organized to create an unparalleled effect in the rainy scene, something which would have been treated normally during the age of movie studios. As a result, there is absolutely no room for an impression of shabbiness.

In the future, much time must be devoted to discussing this new masterpiece of Aoyama, together with the eye-opening adaptation by Haruhiko Arai and the outstanding cast led by Yuko Tanaka. For now, while savoring the exceptional feeling which seems impossible for a running time of 102 minutes, I simply want to increase expectations leading up to the summer release of the film.

Jinshi Fujii
Associate Professor, Faculty of Letters, Arts and Sciences, Waseda University (School of Humanities and Social Sciences)

Jinshi Fujii is in his present position after acquiring credits for a doctoral program at the Graduate School of Human and Environmental Studies in Kyoto University, and working as an assistant at the College of Arts in Rikkyo University. He specializes in film studies, especially Japanese film and contemporary American film. He is also active as a film critic.
His publications as an author and editor include Contemporary Hollywood Cinema: An Introduction (Jimbun Shoin) and Shinji Somai: A Film Director in the Japanese Post-Studio Era (joint authorship; Inscript). He has also carried out the joint translation of I Was Interrupted: Nicholas Ray on Making Movies (Misuzu Shobo).