This year's DOC NYC festival includes a handful of programs of short films, one of which screened Tuesday night at IFC Center and which will screen once again today at 12:30 p.m. Titled "Views on Japan," the program includes two short subjects, Davina Pardo's Minka and Lucy Walker's The Tsunami and the Cherry Blossom. If nothing else, both films provoke us to consider the value of immersing oneself in an outsider's perspective on a particular culture.
Walker's 40-minute film is arguably more interesting, if somewhat problematic, in that regard. The symbolic nature of cherry blossoms—as, among other things, a reminder of the impermanence of life, of the concept known in Japan as mono no aware—is, by now, I would reckon, a pretty widely known aspect of Japanese culture; even many cities in America—Washington, D.C., perhaps most famously—celebrate the blooming of cherry blossoms annually when springtime arrives. So a film that promises to be a meditation on the nature of the cherry blossom as a cultural symbol doesn't sound especially illuminating on the face of it.
Walker, though, has topicality to add a certain measure of freshness to the familiar subject matter. The first half of The Tsunami and the Cherry Blossom, as you might have guessed, focuses on the tragic aftermath of the earthquake and tsunami that hit Japan on March 11. After a gut-wrenching opening blast of home-video footage of the tsunami engulfing a village, Walker interviews various residents, finding harrowing stories of helplessness and regret all around. (One interview subject, for instance, tearfully recounts his experience witnessing his closest friend being washed away right in front of him.)
Then the cherry blossoms enter into the picture as springtime approaches—and while Walker, along with many of her interview subjects, clearly sees the blooming of the cherry blossoms as an inspiring symbol of hope for a nation devastated by previously unimaginable natural disaster, her film isn't quite as simplistic as all that. The Tsunami and the Cherry Blossom becomes an examination of not only the cherry blossom as a cultural symbol, but also of the ways we all latch onto images in order to help us cope during times of trauma. For some, the blooming of cherry blossoms even in a country as devastated as Japan signals the dawn of a new rebuilding phase for the nation; others see it on a more intimate level, as a symbol of time passing ceaselessly by. In essence, the cherry blossom becomes a Rorschach test of sorts for all these people—as most cultural symbols will often be, especially when tied to the ever-changing context of history. People will naturally seen in them what they want to see.
That said, Walker's film is hardly a thesis film about such matters; it also aims to be a cinematic tone poem mourning Japan's devastation and celebrating the possibilities of its rebound. Walker is rather too insistent in trying to fulfill those aims, pouring on the tragedy in the first half, then laying on the redemptive imagery (courtesy of cinematographer Aaron Phillips) and music (by Moby) when a bit more reticence might have been even more effective. The Tsunami and the Cherry Blossom ultimately remains pretty affecting, but for all its noble intentions, it can't entirely shake off the feeling that Walker is filtering a nation's grief through her own outsider's conception of its culture. Maybe Japan's tragedy is simply too enormous to be packaged into tidy homilies about rejuvenation. (Japanese filmmaker Sion Sono had an arguably better idea about how to approach uplift in such a difficult time in his recent film Himizu.)
Minka was also made by a foreigner, but Pardo's film narrowly avoids the same fish-out-of-water feeling, if for no other reason because it features an outsider as one of its subjects: the late John Roderick, an American who was a foreign correspondent in Japan for the Associated Press when he met Yoshihiro Takishita, the film's main interview subject. Throughout the film, Takishita wistfully recounts his and Roderick's budding friendship, which eventually led Roderick to adopt him as his son. So Pardo's film is in part about a moment of cross-cultural connection, something The Tsunami and the Cherry Blossom is only really about by implication.
Woven amid these reminiscences, however, is a visual meditation on a type of wholly Japanese architecture, the "minka" of the title: the farmhouse that Takishita and Roderick rescued from demolition in 1967. Pardo, who shot the film herself, films the interiors of this farmhouse with loving care, conveying a palpable sense of intimacy within its elegant surfaces and cavernous spaces. (Even dust seen floating through the air is made a part of the allure of this farmhouse.) The natural environment surrounding this house is also given its due in Pardo's impressionistic treatment, as she often cuts intuitively between outdoor and indoor views. For Roderick and Takishita, this was home for decades, and Minka, through a combination of Pardo's gorgeously shot images and Takishita's fond memories, vividly conveys a sense of the history that buildings and objects can contain. (In that regard, Minka is, at its best, as powerful and revelatory as Olivier Assayas's Summer Hours, another film that is in part about the personal and historical value of objects.)
Pardo's film may be no more authentically "Japanese" than The Tsunami and the Cherry Blossom, but that hardly matters, in this case, considering how many culturally specific and universal associations it manages to evoke within its densely packed 16 minutes.
DOC NYC runs from November 2—10. For more information, click here.