A Film a Week - Stonesteps / Ishidan

 previously published on Asian Movie Pulse

The original practice of the 88 Temples pilgrimage (henro) was established in the Heinan period of Japanese history (on the border of the Early and the Developed Middle Ages in European terms) and it takes places on the island of Shikoku. However, the tradition has been passed to the different Japanese regions which have their own pilgrimage routes, and some of them are direct, scaled-down (distance-wise) imitations of the original route. One of them, in and near the town of Kojima, is the setting of Koichi Kawata’s drama film “Stonesteps” (“Ishidan” in the original language) that enjoys the international and festival premiere at Japan Film Fest Hamburg.

The film is set around two characters and their unlikely friendship. Natsuki (Kanna Fukui, a singer and former Japanese idol) is a troublesome teenage girl who has a dream of becoming a famous pop singer, but has fallen in with a wrong crowd at school, while her needs are not supported by her hardworking, yet harsh mother. On the other hand, Tsotumu Katayama (Akitoshi Otaki, a stuntman and an actor) is a middle-aged man doing the Kojima 88 Temples pilgrimage in Okayama Prefecture.

Their first encounter is not a pleasant one, since Natsuki’s gang beats up Mr Katayama due to the misinterpretation of his benign comment, but Natsuki’s loving grandmother (Mitsuko Hoshi, a veteran actress best known for her role in the “Ultraman” TV series in the early 70s) is the person who offers him shelter and first aid. She also persuades her granddaughter to offer help to the pilgrim on his trip, which Natsuko unwillingly does. As the two keep visiting temples and revealing things about each other (for instance, he has a lung cancer diagnosis that does not leave him much to live, and her father died from the same thing) and about the very nature of the specific rituals of the henro, they forge a bond and support each other in their strvings to become better persons.

Noble intentions aside, Ishidan seems like an amateurish, semi-pro at best, effort in filmmaking. Regarding the scriptwriting, it seems that Kuwata is following the basic guidelines he could adopt from a workshop, but he is way out of his league when it comes to directing. His creative decisions are nonsensical and the cast and crew is constantly under pressure due to them.

Production values are pretty low, making the assumption that “Ishidan” is a no-budget work quite viable. Sound design is almost non-existent, and the film’s soundscheme, when it is not filled with pop- and gentle acoustic tunes (that sound generic), is riddled with a terrible feedback noise from the microphone, while colour grading is nowhere to be seen. The DoP Yutaka Watanabe shows some promise when it comes to framing particular pictures, but he is not always in position to follow his own instincts. The same goes also for the editor Yousuke Kamano who keeps the material easy enough to follow, whenever let to make decisions, which is not the case in one particularly erratic scene.

With the lack of proper guidance and tasked with stenciled characters and rigid lines of dialogues, the actors usually go into the over-acting mode, which is never corrected by Kuwata. As the most seasoned one, Mitsuko Hoshi infuses the granny with a bit a soul, while Fukui and Otaki show that they come from some other lines of work and compensate the lack of skill with zeal.

Finally, “Stonesteps” looks overlong even in its 72 minutes of runtime and the post-credits epilogue that feels glued to the rest of the film does not help. Maybe the thing to be salvaged from the film is its general humaneness and interesting information about one lesser-known tradition.

No comments:

Post a Comment