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Blu-ray Review: Carlos Reygadas’s Japón on the Criterion Collection

Criterion has graced us with an intoxicatingly beautiful release of a strange and challenging film.

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Japón

It’s unlikely that Susan Sontag ever saw Carlos Reygadas’s debut feature, Japón, which made the festival rounds just a couple of years before the writer’s death in 2004, but if she had, she might well have recognized in the young Mexican auteur a kindred spirit—an artist whose work achieves (or at least attempts to achieve) what Sontag identified in her classic 1964 essay “Against Interpretation” as the mark of all good films: “a directness that entirely frees us from the itch to interpret.” Because while Japón is rife with religious iconography, socio-political observations, and heady filmic allusions, it never seems to be saying something (a pejorative phrase for Sontag) about Christianity, Mexican society, or cinema itself.

An unnamed traveler (Alejandro Ferretis) journeys to a remote village to commit suicide, only to find himself strangely absorbed in the life of an elderly woman, Ascen (Magdalena Flores), with whom he stays. It’s a simple story that Reygadas approaches with a sense of wonder that borders on naïveté. Far less concerned with what his film says than in how it sees, Reygadas attempts nothing less than to recapture for the audience the feeling of perceiving the world for the first time. Shooting in a highly unusual 16-mm Cinemascope format, Reygadas expands our field of vision with the super-widescreen aspect ratio while at the same time reminding us of the limits of our perception by rounding off the corners of the image, which places the entire film in a subtle frame. The breathtaking vistas of the valley where most of Japón takes place takes on an eerie and disorienting aura when viewed through the grainy textures and washed-out color palette of Reygadas’s low-budget film stock.

Japón begins in the city, with a strangely unsettling montage of shots filmed from a vehicle moving through traffic, tunnels, and fog, all set to an ominous orchestral score. This opening exudes a tantalizing sci-fi vibe, a feeling of uncanniness that carries through to the rest of the film as Ferretis’s character treks across the countryside, a stranger in a strange land. His first action out here in the wilderness is simultaneously brutal and magical: He decapitates a bird with his bare hands, after which its head lies on the ground, continuing to caw. It won’t be the last instance of shocking, senseless violence the film will expose us to.

As in his later work, Reygadas isn’t particularly concerned with constructing a narrative or probing his characters’ psychology. Rather, he cycles through various narrative modes; at times we seem to be watching a parable-like tale of suicide in the vein of Abbas Kiarostami’s Taste of Cherry, at others an absurd, darkly comic journey like that of K. in Kafka’s The Castle, and at others a brutal, Herzogian struggle against the elements. Similarly, the behavior of the characters can often seem as arbitrary as the narrative curlicues, even downright weird. Why does Ferretis’s character want to kill himself? Why does he later propose to Ascen, out of the blue, that they have sex? And why does she accept? Not only are these questions left unanswered, but even to ask them feels somehow beside the point. Reygadas asks us not to analyze particular actions, but to feel them in all their elemental strangeness.

Not that everything in Japón is successful in attaining this feeling, as the ambling narrative pace can at times come off as pointless, and Reygadas’s long takes can sometimes seem like little more than patience-testing provocations. The overall effect of the film, however, is one of metaphysical intoxication, a kind of heady gratification brought on by the beauty of Reygadas’s images and the sheer eccentricity of the world the film conjures. In the film’s most memorable sequence, Reygadas depicts with impenitent matter-of-factness his main characters having sex. The filmmaker isn’t trying to turn us on, nor is he attempting to shock us with the unvarnished sight of two older people’s starkly naked forms. Rather, the scene provides the natural culmination of the main character’s journey. His is a quest for higher meaning that inexorably leads back to the base satisfaction of his animal urges.

Image/Sound

The new 2K digital restoration of Japón, supervised by Carlos Reygadas, honors the film’s strange, intoxicating imagery. Despite some small but noticeable image shuddering during a few of the film’s panning shots, it’s safe to say that Reygadas’s film hasn’t looked this good since its initial theatrical rollout. This release preserves the film’s muted yet striking color palette and the gorgeous granularity of its unique 16-mm Cinemascope cinematography. The DTS-HD Master Audio surround soundtrack which highlights the rich sonic environment of the film, from the remarkable subtleties of wind and animal sounds to spectacularly rich music cues from the likes of Bach and Arvo Pärt. This meticulous preservation effort makes a case for Japón as one of the most visually singular debut features of the 21st century.

Extras

The disc’s most notable feature is a conversation between Reygadas and filmmaker Amat Escalante that goes deep into the former’s creative process, influences, and biography. The interview provides a particularly incisive look at Reygadas’s use of storyboards, some of which are also reproduced in the release’s attractive full-color booklet along with production photos and a high-spirited essay by novelist Valeria Luiselli. Also included is Adulte, a Deren-esque short made by Reygadas as a way of teaching himself filmmaking, as well as a deleted scene, a trailer, and a video diary of the production shot by lead actor Alejandro Ferretis. It’s a rich assortment of supplementary materials that provides useful background on Reygadas’s creative methods without attempting to provide any answers to the film’s mysteries.

Overall

In restoring Japón to its original glory, the Criterion Collection has graced us with an intoxicatingly beautiful release of a strange and challenging film.

Cast: Alejandro Ferretis, Magdalena Flores, Yolanda Villa, Martín Serrano, Rolando Hernández, Bernabe Pérez, Fernando Benítez Director: Carlos Reygadas Screenwriter: Carlos Reygadas Distributor: The Criterion Collection Running Time: 134 min Rating: R Year: 2002 Release Date: March 26, 2019 Buy: Video

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