By Dave Wilson | January 19, 2011
Director: Masahiro Kobayashi
Writer(s): Masahiro Kobayashi
Starring: Ken Ogata, Yasufumi Hayashi, Teruyuki Kagawa
“Salmon are lucky,” muses Ken Ogata’s aging sake maker, Nobuo in Masahiro Kobayashi’s Man Walking on Snow. “They spend half their lives in the open seas, completely free. I have always been tied down somewhere, always clinging on, always.” Kobayashi’s 2001 follow up to Bootleg Film (1999) is a mature, nuanced study of a man and his sons who have rigidly defined themselves in opposition to each other. All of them long to break free from the routines they have fallen into, yet sheer stubbornness may prevent them from reconciling with each other or ever attaining the sort of freedom that Nobuo describes.
The film takes place in Mashike, a wintry, isolated city on Japan’s northernmost island of Hokkaidō. Widower Nobuo (Ken Ogata) lives with his youngest son, Yasuo (Yasufumi Hayashi), but spends much of his day trudging through the snow on long rambles through the village. Yasuo has no idea what his father gets up to, but we follow every beat of this shambling routine which includes a pit stop for ice cream and ends finally with a daily visit to a salmon farm, where Nobuo takes great pleasure in checking on the cases of densely packed baby salmon, which are not quite mature enough to release into the sea. He also develops an attraction to a much younger woman named Michiko (Sayoko Ishii) who works with the salmon, and seems to offer the promise of genuine companionship.
We join Nobuo just days before the ceremony that marks the second anniversary of his wife’s death. For two years, he has drifted in a kind of limbo, maintaining his celibacy, waiting for the life that will come next. Like the salmon, he waits for his delivery. Yet even though he longs for his own freedom, he keeps his alienated sons held in check by the ways that he has defined them. His younger son, Yasuo has never left the nest, but serves as a somewhat resentful caretaker, cooking and cleaning and minding the family business. Nobuo’s older son, Ryoichi (Teruyuki Kagawa) left home twelve years earlier to join a band, and the two have hardly spoken to each other at all during the intervening years. Now he and his girlfriend are expecting their first child, and Ryoichi sees this as his opportunity to settle down, abandon his music, and maybe even reconcile with his father. All three characters stand poised for change, yet remain strangely hesitant, unable to make the leap. The deciding moment may come at last on the very day of the mother’s remembrance ceremony.
Kobayashi delineates these family dynamics so well, and yet the film just doesn’t carry the emotional resonance that it should. In many ways, the movie is more solid and assured than Bootleg Film. Instead of giving us subverted genre conventions or layers of cinematic games, Kobayashi creates a more thoughtful, more intimate portrait of a family in transition. And yet Man Walking on Snow is so ponderous and slow moving at times that, like Nobuo, we feel we’re trudging onward without ever quite arriving. Partly this may have to do with the proximity of Kobayashi’s camera to his actors. So much of the film is shot from a great distance, with characters placed far away from us in austere, elegantly composed shots. This may very well communicate his characters’ sense of alienation from each other, the feeling that they’re boxed in or locked between four walls. But the effect is strangely alienating to the audience as well, giving these long takes a sense of slow-moving theatricality, like we’re watching a play from a great distance. Unable to see faces and expressions, we’re left with nothing but the inarticulate evasions of a group of disconnected family members who just can’t communicate with each other. Often, without any warning at all, the camera jumps across space to within a few inches from his character’s faces. This creates some moments of drama and pathos that are truly riveting, so starved are we to see faces and expressions. Whenever Kobayashi cuts in for these rough, handheld close-ups, I think to myself, yes, stay here—this is the film I want to see. But instead, he backs away again. It’s almost as if Kobayashi couldn’t decide if he wanted to make an intimate family drama or a more minimalist parable.
How unusual then is the casting of Ken Ogata (Vengeance is Mine), a veteran actor with such charisma and deep conviction that I literally found myself leaning forward whenever Kobayashi moved in for a close-up. A smile flickering across Ogata’s face, a thought registering behind his eyes, is so completely disarming that these moments are hard to reconcile with the rest of the film. If you’re unfamiliar with Ogata, world weary, sharply intelligent, and truly present in every scene, he may be a revelation to you.
For all of its flaws, Man Walking on Snow contains moments of sheer poetry: when Nobuo dips his hands into those packed cases of tiny, wriggling salmon and lets them slide across his fingers, we understand his joy and feel just how deeply he identifies with them.
Man Walking on Snow has just been released by Facets as part of the Kobayashi Four box set.