Francophile Japanese writer-director Kobayashi Masahiro (Bashing) filmed “Aruku, hito” (Man Walking on Snow, 2001) in Mashike, a small city on the west coast of the northernmost of the major Japanese island, Hokkaido. One of the characters says that there is snow on the ground six months out of the year.
To this native Minnesotan, it does not look all that cold (there’s only one scene in which I see the characters’ breath, although there are many scenes outdoors), though there is often snow in the air, and insulating buildings.
The movie’s patriarch Honma Nobuo (Obata Ken, who played Mishima in Paul Shrader’s highly stylized movie about the writer, the serial killer in Imamura Shohei’s “Vengeance Is Mine,” and Shinnojo’s fencing instructor in “Love and Honor”) is 66 years old in the Japanese intertitle (which would be 65 by American reckoning), but 70 in the English-language subtitle. Every morning he bounds out of town to the graveyard where his wife has been the last two years (the movie begins two days before the anniversary of her death), generally stopping for ice cream on the way, and then visiting recently hatched salmon, and being chided by Michiko about being “unauthorized personnel”… before giving him his daily canned café au lait.
Nobuo has retired from running the sake manufacturing plant that had been in his late wife’s family for four previous generations. It is now supervised by Nobuou’s younger son, Yasuo (Hayashi Yasufumi), who also prepares the old man’s supper every evening,
Yasuo’s girlfriend Keiko (Urabe Fusako) is weary of being subordinate to Nobuo in getting Yasuo’s attention and threatens to marry one of the suitors her parents is pushing. She and his father and, later, his elder brother all tell Yasuo he is stupid, though I don’t see any evidence of this. Self-sacrificing, yes, which may be what his brother means.
Nobuo has taken a vow of chastity from the day of his wife’s death until the two-year anniversary of it, but is flirting heavily with Michiko (whose husband has fled to the other end of the island country: Okinawa).
The elder brother, Ryoichi (Kagawa Teruyuki) was a rebellious youth who fled as soon as he graduated from high school and is the mediocre lead singer of an unsuccessful rock band. He has gotten his sweet companion Nobuko (Otsuka Nene) pregnant and is thinking of going home to live with his father, though the two never got along—and get in a violent argument at the ritual meal after the ceremony for the anniversary of his mother.
Ryoichi urges Yasuo to move to Tokyo and Yasuo also suggests the Ryoichi do so, but it becomes clear that none of the three stubborn Honma males is able to make a fresh start.
The pace of the first hour is slow, though I was still confused and conflated the two sons for a while. Eventually, I was able to sympathize with the three women trying to have relationships with these difficult men (none of whom seemed very mature to me) and with the self-sacrificing Yasuo, and to pity the selfish self-defeating Ryiochi and Nobuo. Ryuochi said that he and his father were too much alike to get along, which seems an accurate diagnosis and prognosis to me.
I don’t know that it was necessary to show Nobuo walking through/on the snow as often or as long as Kobayashi did, though the pacing of Japanese movies often seems slow to me.
Bottom line: not bad, not great, somewhat touching, and eventually interesting.
©2009, Stephen O. Murray