Carlos Reygadas’ mysteriously titled Japón (2002) opens in a darkened car tunnel, and for all we know we’re in Japan (Japón’s English translation), but maybe a Japan of the future. The car taillights glow ember-red below the camera line with white orbs of tunnel light above. A motorcycle glides between stopped traffic. It’s so dark the lights appear to float freely of their own volition, until the cars start to creep forward. The music starts, laced with ethereal tension and danger. We round a corner in the darkness and a bright, blinding light appears – the tunnel exit (or so it would seem) – and we move towards it but never reach it before we’re thrust out into the world with a hard cut. We’re in the city, but the highways and billboards soon give way to lush tress and dirt roads. We’re on a journey. We don’t know where we’re going or whose journey it is yet, but we’re along for the ride.
This simple and ambiguously tense opening sequence was all I needed to be taken with Reygadas’ style. Japón isn’t a story of exposition or tedious narrative, but of humanistic and cinematic discovery, told through the sensual and violent, painful and tender actions and emotions of its characters. Drawing from the likes of Tarkovsky or Kiarostami, the film doesn’t rush us with kinetic editing. It meanders slowly across the landscapes of its setting and characters, opening up possibilities of interpretation and meaning as its long takes push longer and longer.
In an interview with Flavia Dima in 2018, Reygadas discussed his filmmaking approach in terms of the balance between cosmos and chaos — a more than appropriate frame for the themes and style of Japón:
“Well, even starting from the Greeks, especially Aristotle… the simple narrative, not just the literary one, but any kind of narrative requires cosmos and chaos. This is why everything happens. You go from cosmos to chaos, and then back again…”
Japón was the Mexican filmmaker’s ambitiously graceful and haunting debut feature. The film’s style and aesthetics are often likened to Andrei Tarkovsky’s Andrei Rublev (1966) or Stalker (1979) and Abbas Kiarostamis’ Taste of Cherry (1997). Several shots appear to be in direct homage to these directors and their films, but Japón takes us on a singular journey that is intimately corporeal and nearly mythological. Its characters can be read as allegorical but are constructed with a raw realism. They have bodies that feel pain, pleasure, and the enduring weight of life’s challenges.
After its mystical opening Reygadas eventually reveals his protagonist, not by name though. He is simply listed as “The Man” (Alejandro Ferretis) in the credits. He’s hitchhiked a ride from Mexico City into the country; his destination is a canyon town named Ayacatzintla, Aya for short. As he sets out on foot through agave fields he stumbles upon a hunting party shooting birds. One is shot down and a young boy scurries to retrieve it. He is tasked with defeathering and removing its head, but his fingers are too weak. He asks The Man to help, who does so silently, casting it to the ground.
Reygadas offers a close-up shot of what appears to be a real bird’s head gasping instinctually for life. It is a startling image, one that has stuck with me since seeing the film. As the story unfolds this imagery becomes symbolic. Speaking with one of the hunters The Man is asked why he wants to go to Aya. He simply responds, “To kill myself.” Without skipping a beat or registering a moment of surprise the hunter nods his head and says, “All right. Hop in the van.” It must be harsh territory for suicide to be met with such listless acceptance. The bird might then serve as metaphor for The Man himself – disembodied, shot down and demoralized by life in the city, and gasping for his final breaths. The rest of the film tracks his journey of rediscovery – from chaos to cosmos – and back again, through a most unlikely source.
Stopping in a small town, San Bartola, just above the canyon, The Man is introduced to an elderly widow, Ascension (Magdalena Flores). He mistakenly calls her Asuncion, a difference of importance. She corrects him, “I’m Ascension, which refers to Christ ascending into heaven with no one’s help. And Asuncion refers to the Virgin Mary who was taken up by the angels.” She is deeply religious, ruggedly independent yet tender, and his savior. He stays in her barn preparing himself for descent into Aya and death, but Ascen lives up to her name and awakens in him a desire and empathy he may have thought lost.
Shot in 16mm CinemaScope the characters are never quite able to fill the extremely wide-angle frame. They must constantly share the screen with the expansive Mexican landscape – a character in its own right. Reygadas also relies on slow and incessant pans to reveal its intimate presence. He may very well have reinvented the “pan” in panoramic, often covering 180 degrees or more in a single shot. It creates a wandering effect, of breathing in the surroundings, not letting them slip by. Often, a shot will drift away from characters during these pans to observe their surroundings or some small gesture from a stranger or natural occurrence, as if to expose the wider world and our character’s small place within it.
The Man and Ascen develop a deep and intimate bond that builds slowly through the selfless hospitality she offers him. It is by way of little moments together — discussions of art, sharing marijuana, and the little pleasantries and slights of conversation — that their bond, which you couldn’t characterize as love, but maybe recognition, is formed. The Man slowly begins to appreciate life and its fleeting moments once more, but an emerging conflict in Ascen’s life pushes us towards the film’s conclusion.
Ascen’s nephew, recently released from prison, claims her barn’s stones as his own. Its deconstruction is bitterly ironic: it liberates The Man to fully embrace life while destroying Ascen’s livelihood. Not only will her barn be gone, but it functioned as a windbreak for her home, which won’t withstand the harsh winds with it gone. This grave injustice further reveals her unquestionable empathy; even as laborers break down her barn, stone by stone, she offers them drinks. Ascen is compelled to escort the stones away, realizing they are more than just mere building blocks, in a beautiful shot reminiscent of one from Tarkovsky’s Stalker. The camera, trained on the back of her head, tracks with the receding landscape as she rides on a wagon with them. It is a devastatingly beautiful shot.
This is the penultimate sequence, which pales only in beauty and emotional resonance to the final sequence, a heartbreaking revelation that now seemed inevitable. It is achieved through the most masterful execution of the film’s formal building blocks and emotional construction. Reygadas, in the end, finds a balance between cosmos and chaos not through the championing of one over the other, but in their sublime entanglement. One may cede to the other temporarily, but they could not exist alone. Among the universal myths of the cosmos and the corporeal pains of the body Japón stages its exploration of life in all its excruciating beauty.
Japón will screen at the IU Cinema on Saturday, March 23 at 7 pm as part of the Carlos Reygadas: His Time series. The director will be present for several of his films in the series, and includes the Jorgensen Guest Filmmaker Series, comprised of an extended, on-stage interview on Friday, March 29 at 7 pm with the director.
Caleb Allison usually prefers his films slow, cryptic or menacing and doesn’t always understand why. A Ph.D. student at Indiana University, Caleb researches home-video cultures, film history, and production and distribution industries. He is an unrestrained collector of the Criterion Collection, a fan of Super 8 film and a Tarkovsky nut.