I don’t like streaming. I prefer a physical video or a broadcast I can record. I don’t know how anyone can write about films seen once on a TV screen. Cinema screenings are slightly different as concentration is much easier in a cinema context – at least for me. It’s too easy to turn away from the screen and do something else when you are at home. It’s especially difficult to watch avant-garde or ‘experimental’ narratives on TV. Domains, which has just finished its run on MUBI is a case in point. This Japanese film by Kusano Natsuka is 150 minutes long and I found myself trying to watch it on its last evening of availability. I have to confess that there were moments when I switched to a faster speed and tried to shorten the running time without losing the sense of what I was watching. You might want to bear that in mind as you read my comments.
Domains is the second film by Ms Kusano. Her first, Antonym, was released in 2014. This new film was shown at Rotterdam in 2019 and has had a wider presentation internationally. It appears to me to be both an exploration of narrative form and possibly an analysis of a familiar triangular relationship, which in this case has resonance in a number of familiar Japanese narratives. The narrative opens with a simple set up. A woman in her late twenties, ‘Aki’, is seated at a table in a room without other furnishing. Across the table is a young man who reads to her a statement, in effect a confession, detailing how she murdered the 3 year-old daughter of her childhood friend Nodoka. The young man who may be a police officer or a court official wishes Aki to confirm her statement formally as she is now being ‘brought to justice’. Aki is confused and at one point she starts to sing a “gloomy Japanese folksong ‘Moon over Ruined Castle'” (as identified by Hayley Scanlon on her blog ‘Windows on Worlds’). The relevance of the song will become clear later, but what does this opening scene represent? Many reviews suggest that this is the climax of the story and that the whole story will appear in a long flashback. I’m not sure about that.
In the second scene, the same actor playing Aki (Shibuya Asami) is joined by a second actor (Kasajima Tomo) and after a while we realise that they are reading a script dealing with the events that Aki has related in her confession. Immediately we have a problem. Is ‘Aki’ a character in a fictional drama and are we still in the same fiction? Or is this a formal deconstruction of the narrative in which Kasajima reads the lines belonging to Aki’s friend Nodoka, but isn’t actually going to play the character in the fictional narrative? (I think I saw a comment that this film has something in common with Kore-eda’s After Life (Japan 1998) and there might be something in that.) The two actors read and re-read lines and there is a camera and a clapperboard to confuse us. We are in a rehearsal room. Why are these dialogue scenes being filmed, sometimes with ten takes? We do notice that the readings become more animated and soon a third actor appears. Adachi Tomomitsu reads the dialogue of Nodoka’s husband Naota and the same process of re-readings carries on. Eventually we do leave the rehearsal room to make brief journeys by foot and by car visiting various important locations. The basic story doesn’t change but gradually the elements of the story accrete more details and insights. But this doesn’t sound much for 150 minutes does it? I should emphasise that the pacing is very slow and there are several moments when a fade to black or a static composition is held so long that I wondered whether the streaming had frozen.
I can see that the formal operation here does reveal something about how theatrical and cinematic narratives work and how actors engage with and develop scripts. The slow pacing and the repetition is arguably necessary to illustrate these processes. We also get time to think about the other aspect of Kusano’s film – the story of the three characters.
Aki and Nodoka went to a girls’ school together in this small community and then to the local university where they met Naota. Aki then left to work in Tokyo, an hour’s journey away and only returned to visit her friend after four years. Aki is currently on some form of sick leave, having suffered a minor breakdown at her job in the production division of a publishing house. Naoto has a job as an art teacher in a middle school and Nodoka has been at home with her daughter Honoka (who is now 3 and will soon go to kindergarten). When Aki arrives at Nodoka’s house for the first time, she notices the temperature and humidity, but also that Nodoka has changed and that she appears repressed in some way. It is then that we realise the importance of the song about castles and the film’s title ‘Domains’. Naoto the teacher is governed by ‘logic’ and by language, the importance of words. This is his ‘domain’. Aki and Nodoka as children had their own ‘domain’ – ‘castles’ built by stretching fabric over chairs and climbing inside. Aki sees this as a domain of feelings. The clash with Naota feels inevitable.
All of this seems to me to be familiar from aspects of Japanese culture and Japanese cinema. I’ll just offer two observations on this. First Kusano also offers us a number of static shots. Some are shots of significant story elements such as images of trees in the wind (the murder takes place during a specific moment in the ‘eye’ of a typhoon in the Kanto region). Others may be symbolic, but also reminded me of Ozu’s classic ‘pillow shots’ – an outside shot of a house or an empty room, often with a sense of graphic design, that serves to punctuate the flow of images and to subtly change our expectation of the next shot. But some of these seemed to be held too long to play the same kind of role as in Ozu’s family dramas. Secondly, the discourse about male and female power/status is here explored in a situation where the social position of Nodoka is determined solely by her maternal role. All three characters have the same background and the same education. For Naota to retain control, he must oppose Aki. She is a threat to family and to his ‘logic’.
Domains is an interesting film. It is also, for me, frustrating. I’m interested in the story and in the presentation of the narrative. But I really do think it could be accomplished in less than 150 minutes and that if the audience was more continuously engaged they would get more from it. I note that the film was written by Takahashi Tomoyuki, who was one of three writers on Happy Hour (2015) a five hour marathon about the lives of four 30 something women and reviewed by Nick Lacey, which also streamed on MUBI. Nick tells us that: “Overall it was well worth the effort of sitting in front of a television for hours”. He watched it in two parts. The subject matter sounds similar but the presentation sounds more conventional. I’m interested that this male screen writer should be writing women’s stories for a woman to direct (he also wrote Kusano’s first film Antonym). I suspect that for the moment Kusano Natsuka might find her work confined to festivals, although this was actually a MUBI release in the UK – disrupted by the pandemic. I will be interested to see what she produces next.