Late in Kuichisan, the nameless almost-baldheaded boy (Raizo Ishihara) who’s the closest the film comes to a central character spouts a bunch of gibberish to a gang of young kids, to which they respond with hostile cries of “You don’t make sense!” and “Busted brain!” For some viewers who, by this point, are still resisting the wantonly free-associational wavelength of this brazenly oddball doc-fiction hybrid, the moment may well play like a shamelessly self-referential joke—as if filmmaker Maiko Endo were arrogantly rubbing our noses in just how willfully obscure her movie has been up till now. Indeed, this is by no means an easy film to get a handle on, but instead of dismissing it in toto for being too hermetically sealed, perhaps it’s best to submit to its flow of images, treating the small Okinawa town of Koza at its center the same way a tourist might approach it: as a foreign locale in which to try to acclimate oneself.
Endo’s use of 16mm stock is immediately striking, often switching between black and white and color seemingly at random. Actually, it turns out that a lot of things in Kuichisan seem random on the surface. Here’s a film where a scene of performers doing a traditional Japanese dance is immediately followed by images from a neon-lit nightclub; where runny digital-video imagery coexists on the same plane as grainy 16mm footage; where electronic musical cacophony resides in the same sphere as more pleasing-to-the-ear Japanese pop songs. Kuichisan, in short, is built on bold contrasts, engendering much of its in-the-moment fascination through the tantalizing suggestions of such contrasts. Tradition versus modernity, silence versus language, urban versus rural: Endo evokes all of these dualities through a stream of sequences rather than relying on a plot to tie it all together.
Here and there, however, the filmmaker offers a few moments of dialogue that obliquely imply some thematic tent poles. It even offers one right off the bat, when someone says to Ishihara’s character, “The world is going to end.” The blown-out black and white and extreme close-ups of the hairs getting shaved off the boy’s head do exude something of an apocalyptic flavor, and a scene in which children discuss UFO sightings furthers the film’s vague supernatural feel. Elsewhere, other residents of this Okinawa village recount long-ago-heard tales, radio broadcasts referring to pressing political matters in town are overheard in isolated moments, and then there’s the one American (Eleonore Hendricks), a woman who’s identified by the boy early in the film as “a foreigner,” who expresses her cultural dislocation into a tape recorder. If anything, Kuichisan as a whole induces a feeling of dropping in on an alien environment, the potentially bucolic rhythms of life in this small Japanese town made surreal and forbidding.
These myriad impressions never quite add up to anything coherent by the end, but perhaps the incoherence is precisely the point. Endo’s formal approach could be said to reflect a town as seemingly divided upon itself as Koza, which, based on this film at least, seems to perpetually straddle the gap between the traditional and the modern. Kuichisan may not resonate as anything deeper than a deliberately fractured portrait of a city, but this is the kind of overreaching experiment that has the power to linger in the memory, as much because of its frustrations as in spite of them.