The term “shokakko (小確幸)”, an abbreviation for “small, real happiness”, was coined by Haruki Murakami in the 1980s. In his writing, drinking a cold, refreshing beer after a good workout is a “shokakko”, as is having a drawer neatly filled with folded underwear. The same idea of cherishing the small things in everyday life became the foundation of a whole genre of cinema and TV drama after the turn of the century. These works focus on ordinary people’s daily lives with an overall tone of gentleness, in favor of location shooting, tranquil mise-en-scene, and melodious scores. Steady medium shots underline typical imagery such as cooking and eating, casual conversations by the table, a proper amount of manual labor, and relaxed walks down the road. The stories are usually set in charming weather (hiyori 日和), a simple place away from the metropolitan excitement and anxiety, and a small but inclusive community that harbors anyone who needs it. Because of these prominent features, the Japanese audience has come to a general agreement describing the genre iyashi kei (癒やし系, the emotionally healing type), a type of narrative that provides temporary comfort and relaxation.
Ogigami Naoko is arguably an iconic filmmaker of this genre since the release of her earlier works such as Kamome Shokudo (2006) and Megane/Glasses (2007) which were well received both at home and in Europe. The leading actor in both, Satomi Kobayashi, goes on to work with Glasses’ making-of director, Kana Matsumoto, for more of the same kind, including the film Mother Water (2010), the TV series Bread and Soup and Cat Weather (2013) and Pension Metsä (2021). Other actors familiar to the genre include the veteran Masako Motai, Mikako Ichikawa, Ryo Kase, Yu Aoi, and lately Haru Kuroki, etc. The Little Forest franchise (2014 & 2015), starring TIFF 2021’s festival ambassador, Ai Hashimoto, was another successful example that crossed national borders and touched the hearts of audiences in Taiwan, China, and South Korea. A few years later, South Korea made its own version of the story as well as a variety show based on the same idea where pop stars were invited to spend some quality time with their families enjoying nature. All these countries are facing urbanization problems such as congestion, housing difficulties, long working hours, and stressful working environments, where work-life balance may be nothing more than a pipe dream. On the other hand, the consumerist culture has been greatly exploiting the idea of “nature” and “tradition” in recent decades, from tourism to cosmetics. The idea of finding oneself while encountering a new community in rural Japan (or a Japanese enclave as in the case of Kamome Shokudo) is very much still alive since Japanese National Railways first launched its “Discover Japan” campaign in 1970. While the protagonists gradually adjust to the new community and learn to appreciate the new life, audiences also find themselves sharing that comfort and the appreciation of their own lives.
While maintaining the warmth in its DNA, Riverside Mukoritta smartly brings more bitterness to its palette, lightly touching on issues of criminality, lonely death (kodokushi 孤独死), broken family, and so on. Each main character is somewhat quirky and touching, without exception, and they all eventually reconcile with what life has left them. Buddhist thinking is once again deeply entrenched in the philosophy of life here, only this time it is brought up to the foreground by the term Mukoritta (meaning a slice of time) and the monk character. The small and real happiness remains in the center of the story, while the audience is constantly reminded by the other little incidents that no romantic fantasy is promised; no healing comes without pain.
Being Singular Plural
While Naoko Ogigami shies away from either use or discussion of cultural theory in her films, the latter lend themselves with ease to conceptual analysis. This is also the case for her latest film in which the main character, a young man who did jail time for fraud ends up working in a squid factory in Toyama. His meager salary, and credentials, see him relying on a housing contact provided by his employer.
In the early moments of the film, the narrative suggests that this is as much an environment of incarceration as the one left behind; there is a matron, there are rules, the walls for each of the tiny apartments are such that there is next to no privacy, and the first encounter is with a neighbor who tries to bully himself in to take a bath.
But as each scene introduces a new neighbor, including a ghost who never left, an essence of community rapidly comes to the foreground. The perimeter which they inhabit evokes Jean-Luc Nancy’s notion of ‘existence as co-existence, and that of being as “being-with”, a mutual abandonment and exposure to each other’.
Every tenant is in mourning: the loss of a father, a husband, a wife, a child. A fatherless girl and a motherless boy play in a trash heap near their home, making phone calls to someone/something beyond and waiting for the callback. Each act of sharing is painted as revelation, and Ogigami excels in making use of the contrast between the confined spaces and the initial reluctance to share, and the lush nature and its seaside from which they benefit at a micro level, with the threat of typhoons taking away what little they have.
Riverside Mukolitta accurately describes 21st-century poverty in Japan
as the director pursues her exploration of social margins in the country. Her characters have made a challenging journey back since her 2006 Kamome Diner shot in Finland. They have returned to a place where neighbors can share a traditional dinner because one of them sold a 2 million yen tombstone to a wealthy pet owner.
Interview with the director Naoko Ogigami
From the film Kamome Shokudo to Riverside Mukolitta, it seems that the dinner table, as a social activity site that brings people together, has always been a significant motif and a functionally important thread in your work. Is this also the case in the original novels? Were you already thinking about the role eating/cooking would play in the story when you started to conceive Riverside Mukolitta or did the idea come to you later?
I always want to portray the trivial everyday life. Rather than deliberately creating scenes of eating, those scenes come naturally as having three meals a day is very common to all of us. These scenes exist already in the script.
In this story, in particular, the act of eating is also connected with death.
I think there is no need for any explanation, living is always linked to death. Eating is an act of living, so it has a rather close connection to death.
Japanese novels, manga, and films have all used an ex-con protagonist, I’m thinking here of titles such as Hitsuji no Ki (manga, 2011-2014) & The Scythian Lamb (film adaptation, 2017), Mibuncho (novel, 1990), Under the Open Sky (film adaptation, 2020). What’s your particular take on the issue?
With the development of social media, I feel that people who have committed crimes in the past are now in a situation where they will never be forgiven. But I think that there should be more chances to start over. Everyone makes mistakes, and even those who have committed crimes should have a chance to start over again more easily.
This is not just a task for the ex-con him/herself, but one for the society they are in.
The main characters have lived very different lives up until their encounter in Riverside Mukolitta. They are then brought together by the difficulties each of them faces and literally form a community while learning how to co-exist. This is very different from the discourse of identity politics.
I certainly agree. What’s important is that they are not friends or family, but have built a very graceful relationship with each other. They help each other when someone is in trouble, and when they aren’t they leave each other alone. Is that really so rare? These people happen to have something in common with each other, which is that they have all lost a loved one. So, on one hand, they can understand each other, and on the other they respect each other’s solitude, forming a very comfortable community. I myself want to live in such an environment, which is why I wrote this script.
Buddhist concepts are at the center of the story. How did you decide to engage with Buddhist thinking? What’s your observation of religious beliefs in contemporary Japanese society?
When I made the film “Megane,” I was told by several foreign audiences that they found Buddhist teachings in the film, which I wasn’t aware of while making the film. Even if I don’t realize it, it’s probably still in me, born as a Japanese. In 2012, I went to the U.S. for a year as part of the Agency for Cultural Affairs’ overseas program, and I learned yoga. In yoga, when it’s hot, Americans take off their jackets right away, but the other Japanese and I would fold up our clothes a little before putting them away. When I saw small things like that, I thought maybe there indeed was something Buddhist or spiritual embedded in the daily lives that we share as Japanese. This time, I consciously tried to include something of the Buddhist sense that we originally have.
Do you have a favorite character in Riverside Mukolitta? Why?
The guitar player. He’s homeless, a free man who transcends dimensions.
In this film, Mitsushima Hikari is transformed from the figure of a whimsical shojo that she often played in previous years to a young mother who still hangs on in part to that personality, but with more responsibility. What was the casting process and how was the collaboration between you two?
For the role of a single mother whose husband has passed away, I wanted someone with a bit of an eccentric or “crazy” side, and I thought that Ms. Mitsushima would be perfect for the role. She’s a very sensitive person, and she’s difficult in some ways -sometimes she reads people’s minds. That part of her was really scary, and I felt that if I wasn’t honest with her, she would see right through me, so I made an effort to be honest with her all the time. It was not so much about acting, but more about being honest myself.
I read in one of your previous interviews that after shooting the scene where the mother and the daughter sitting in the back of the taxi, Ms. Mitsushiima came to you and asked if you were missing your own twins.
Yes, yes. Scary. (laughs)
your films explore characters who have chosen to live outside traditional systems, at times in the margins. You consistently represent other Japanese social realities. How did you come to that choice or theme?
Japanese society has a very strong sense of peer pressure, and since I was a child, I have felt very constrained by it. I went to study in the U.S. and came back to Japan and found that I still couldn’t get used to it. I have such strong feelings that I am always drawn to people who are outside of society, people who are left behind like the protagonists in my stories.
You had characters who left Japan, who went to Finland, then made their way back, to Yoron Island in Kyushu, then to Tokyo and its surroundings. Was that always the plan for you or would you have wanted to continue shooting Japanese stories abroad?
The idea of “outside of Tokyo, outside of Tokyo” is probably indeed very strong in my mind. I live in Tokyo with my family of four in a small apartment, and I feel very cramped every day, so I guess I can’t help but feel the need to “go outside, go outside”.
You have shown a wide spectrum of female characters in your films, several times women without men: women who forge strong friendships, single mothers, either bad ones or devoted ones, or others who found ‘someone’ after a series of challenging choices, the teacher in Megane or the senior care worker in Close Knit. Do you think this is something that Japanese contemporary cinema has stopped doing?
Probably because Japanese cinema is still very much dominated by male directors. (Laughs)
If we look at the percentage and numbers of male and female directors, have you observed any changes throughout the years?
I do think more and more female directors are emerging nowadays. However, Japanese society itself is still very much male-dominated and conservative. I believe that Japan will probably not have a female prime minister for another 20 years.
Have there been international women filmmakers who have been important to you, Agnes Varda, Chantal Akerman, or more recently Kelly Reichardt or Chloe Zhao?
I don’t watch films based on whether the director is male or female. I like some directors because I like their work, of course sometimes they happen to be female. That being said, I love jane champion.
Your new film quickly assembles a community of characters truly living on the margins, played by actors that Japanese audiences care about. They live next to a trash heap, where the children wait for a call from ‘beyond’. We’ve seen directors from Fellini to Iwai Shunji using similar ideas. It allows for many poetic choices when shooting, lighting, for sound. It is a wonderfully directed film, balancing cramped interiors with a strong presence of nature. Was the shooting process this time freer or more rigorous? How long was the shooting?
Thank you for that question. I think the film was shot very freely. Even though we were shooting in a very narrow apartment (which is probably unique to Japan), we felt very free. I think that was due to the fact that the film was shot in the countryside surrounded by nature in Toyama, and that the flow of time was much slower than in Tokyo. Also, we were shooting during the COVID-19 pandemic. Even though we were all mentally in a very tight spot, the fact that we were able to shoot in Toyama where COVID-19 was not as much of an issue as in Tokyo gave us a lot of room to breathe.