Saturday, November 15, 2014

DOC NYC ’14: Kasamayaki

Katsuji and Shigeko Kokubo are a lot like the Shinoharas in Cutie and the Boxer, except they gave up their ambitions of conquering the American art world and returned to Japan. When they did, somehow they left their twelve year old daughter Yuki behind. If you are wondering how that worked, their grown filmmaker daughter will ask them directly when she documents her post 3/11 return to Japan in Kasamayaki (trailer here), which screens during this year’s DOC NYC.

A stone’s throw from Fukushima, Kasama is a traditional rural artist colony, particularly known for its kasama-yaki style of pottery. At its finest, it approaches the sort of elegant and deceptively simple work the Ippodo Gallery often showcases. In recent years, the Kokubos largely support themselves through their pottery, but Katsuji had dreamed of making it as a painter.

Just what arrangements they made for their daughter when they slunk out of New York are never really explained. There is some vague talk about not wanting to take her out of school, but her mother clearly does not want to discuss it—and her father is just as obviously the junior partner when it comes to family decisions.

Frankly, Kasamayaki is a somewhat odd film, because it is outwardly quite placid and meditative, but there is a lot of emotional turmoil brewing below the surface. At times, the very act of filmmaking appears to be a deliberate strategy to keep Kokubo’s parents at arm’s length. However, those eager for some heartwarming Hallmark moments will at least get a bit of paternal rapprochement. There are also cats and dogs lazing all around the Kokubos’ converted farmhouse, which is always a plus for that audience.

Kasamayaki is much more about intimate family drama than documenting the realities of post-earthquake Fukushima, but there are a few telling time capsule moments, as when Kokubo’s father checks out one of the Geiger counters provided by the local government. Yet, despite it all, Kasama still looks like a lovely place to visit when seen through her lens.

Although small in scope, it is strangely absorbing, following in the tradition of intensely personal Japanese documentaries, represented by films like Mami Sunada’s Death of a Japanese Salesman and Yang Yonghi’s Dear Pyongyang. Recommended for those who appreciate Japanese pottery and the vérité aesthetic, Kasamyaki screens tomorrow (11/16) as part of DOC NYC 2014.